Review of Wendell Berry UK poetry collection

This column is usually reserved for new collections, but there is a reason to break this rule for Wendell Berry. It is extraordinary that he is not better known. I was on the verge of saying he should be a household name, but households have never been his thing. His selected verse, in a new edition by Penguin, is the work of an outdoorsman; it aspires to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea that nature is, for all the depredations, “never spent”. This is poetry to lower blood pressure, to induce calm.

Berry’s gift, as a Kentucky farmer and as a writer, is to root himself as a tree might – not to commandeer nature but to cherish it. I do not think it fanciful to see these poems as a form of manual labour – of necessary work. The title poem – his best known – is, at the same time, a secular prayer. The language is slightly churchy, which might not be to everyone’s taste, although there is pleasure in seeing church and meadow come together harmoniously. Berry repeatedly finds a remedy in nature, yet never comes to it in quite the same way.

To read the whole review by Kate Kellaway, go to The Guardian.

Reflections on LoA's first Wendell Berry volume

Significantly, however, the first volume from the Library of America is not a selection of his essays but of his fiction. And indeed it is as a storyteller that Berry is most uniquely able to unite our divided country. His fiction probes the virtues that sustain heterogeneous communities and the vices that threaten them, and reading his stories can help us imagine how we might set to work mending the fractures that threaten our communities. In particular, Berry’s stories bear witness to the redemptive, reconciling power of patient imagination; before we try to convince others of our firmly held convictions, we need to learn how to belong in membership with them.

Particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many observers have pointed out America's increasingly polarized geography. More and more of us live with people who think like we do, who share our income bracket, and who consume news from the venues we do. Yet Berry doesn't easily fit into any of our major political or cultural tribes. He's not a nationalist or a globalist; he's a patriot. He's not an industrialist or an environmentalist; he's an agrarian. His unorthodox thinking has attracted a broad and diverse readership: you are as likely to find his words in a church bulletin as on a climate-march sign. In spite of his own occasional participation in nonviolent protests, Berry is fundamentally against movements and the fashionable politics of the moment (in 1969 he presciently warned that popular causes in the electronic age almost invariably become fads).

Read the full essay, "Patiently Learning to Belong," by Jeffrey Bilbro at The University Bookman.

"Wendell Berry and the Given Life" reviewed

It might be easiest to define this book by what it is not. It is definitively not a biography of Wendell Berry, which is a good thing, considering how often and forcefully he has rejected the idea of a biography himself. (One of my favorite Berry quotes regarding this is from an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked who he would want to write his life story: “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”) Sutterfield acknowledges this at the outset as well and offers only cursory demographic information. This book is also not a dissertation-style explication of a single author’s work; Sutterfield generally stays away from literary criticism at all. The book is only 150 pages and written in relatively plain language, which also excludes it from the average critical analysis.

Instead, the mission of the book is laid out early and adhered to well: to cast a cohesive vision of what Berry writes about across the breadth of his work, which includes his poetry, fiction, and essays. Sutterfield does spend some time placing Berry’s work in context, and of course any reader of Berry’s knows how important context – specifically place – is to him and his writing. This is the first book I’ve read, to my memory, of this style; writing exclusively about an author and his work, but not attempting to analyze the work in a typical criticism style. I suspect that Sutterfield – a writer, teacher, and naturalist, who is obviously very familiar with Berry’s work – wrote this book for the same reason I would: he loves the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s writing is uniquely rich and covers ground that is both narrow in scope and endlessly complex, and Wendell Berry and the Given Life seeks to tease out some of the major themes.

Read the whole review by Brent Schnipke at Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith

Reviewing "Wendell Berry and Higher Education"

“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”

Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.

As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.

Read the complete article by Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative.

Thinking along with "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

But Look and See is not about Berry as much as it is about what Berry can teach us about seeing. To underscore this point, Berry himself is noticeably unseen in the film, though he is heard throughout. Much of the film consists of voiceovers from Berry, often reciting his own poetry as we see images of trees, dirt, streams, skies, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel, who previously shot films like Boyhood and Before Sunset.

A motif and guiding frame of the film is the forty-pane window that Berry sits before as he writes. From his desk, he looks out through this window and sees tobacco fields and the Kentucky River. He describes the window as “a graph” that structures our seeing but nevertheless cannot contain the wild, organic, and unstructured life on the other side of the glass. “The window has forty / panes, forty clarities,” we hear Berry read, from his “Window Poems,” describing how the “black grid” frames the wilds of nature beyond: trees, rivers, slopes, clouds.

To learn to see, we must learn to love windows as Berry loves his, to love them for their “clarities” in spite of their smudges and dust. To see well is to position ourselves before windows but to also recognize their limits. Any given window can only frame part of reality, just as any given photograph or film shot can only glimpse a fraction of what is seeable. A window helps us see because it fosters curiosity. Its limits and boundaries beckon us to explore beyond, to imagine where the river bends next and from where the wind blows.

Read the whole article by Brett McCracken at The Other Journal.

Review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

For 52 years, the nature writer Wendell Berry has sat down to work every day at a long wooden desk in his office, facing a large window with 40 panes of glass. The window, which Berry built himself, overlooks his farm in tiny Port Royal, Kentucky. Most people would say the view isn’t much: just a few tree branches and a river off in the distance. But Berry revels in the smallest, most mundane details, and he’s written volumes of poetry based on the view from his window. He thinks of its 40 panes as a graph, a framework he can use to make sense of the world outside. “In a sense what I’ve done all my life,” he says in a new documentary inspired by his work, Look & See, “is hold up an artifact that you can, so to speak, see through against the world.”

At 83, Berry is one of the most celebrated environmental writers and activists in the United States. He’s published more than 40 books in genres as diverse as lyric poetry, political essays, an eight-novel series and at least 47 short stories. Berry has won almost every major literary award and often draws comparisons to Faulkner and Thoreau. He’s an acclaimed activist who once debated the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, yet he’s also notoriously media-shy, preferring to grow vegetables and raise sheep on his family farm rather than participate in movies or magazine profiles. Last year, when the New York Times asked him who he’d want to write his biography, he replied, “A horrible thought. Nobody.”

Read the complete review by Rose Cahalan at Texas Observer.

Early review of forthcoming Wendell Berry volume

As a novelist, essayist, and poet, Berry (Roots to the Earth, 2016, etc.) has been writing work that is all of a piece for more than half a century; reduced, if it must be, his aim is the old agrarian ideal of standing for what one stands on, defending one’s place on Earth. The author notes his wife’s observation that “my principal asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself,” a gentle jibe that is true, but necessarily so. There’s no end to threats to small farmers, or an economy of health, or “good work,” the opposite of which is “waste of fertility and of the land itself.”


(Cover art via nlcaputo_design at Instagram)

See the complete (brief) review at Kirkus.

Reflections on a new study of Wendell Berry

Wiebe, who teaches religion and ecology at the University of Alberta, argues that Berry’s fiction, particularly the Port William stories, reveals that learning to belong to a place is a process that requires the work of imagination and affection. The goods of rural life, according to Wiebe, are good only insofar as they “participate in a healthy social imagination of the place in which they are performed.” Imagination, more than technique or tradition, is the formative capacity that most influences human action and communal life. More than advocating for a new system of local agricultural practice, Berry’s writing reveals his struggle to reckon with the inextricable link between land and people, particularly as that struggle is enacted through his family’s involvement in the legacy of racism.

For Wiebe, the ultimate value of Berry’s fiction is its poetics—its ability to re-form human life through the work of the imagination. “The work of imagination is a work of self-interrogation,” not a head-in-the-clouds escapism. Imagina­tion asks that we see a thing for what it is and, in so doing, acknowledge the claim the thing makes upon us. This work of self-interrogation begins, for Berry, in the return to his native Kentucky, which compels him to reckon with the ways he and his family violated the relationship of land, place, and people by the forcible removal of the Shawnee people and the enslavement of African Americans who worked the stolen land. “Berry’s racial concerns are central to his agrarianism.”

Read the whole article by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger at The Christian Century.

Reading Wendell Berry's "Roots to the Earth"

I just read Roots to the Earth, a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose on American rural life. It is a meditation on living well.

The book first appeared a quarter century ago in a portfolio illustrated with Wesley Bates’ woodcuts. Three years ago, Larkspur Press released a limited edition of one hundred copies. Last year, Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press made the book available to the general public.

Even at one remove from a letterpress printing, this affordable volume is lavish. Bates’ illustrations recall the work of Rockwell Kent, Lynn Ward, and other midcentury traditionalists. However, while Kent and Ward foregrounded their figures against midnight-dark skies, Bates opens his to the light. That echoes the generosity of Berry’s poems and recalls as well some of the cheer found in children’s books, which may explain why Skylight Books displayed the copy I bought in the store’s kiddie section. I think that’s a mistake. True, there’s no reason that older children can’t read Roots to the Earth. Yet it’s adults who are likely most receptive to Berry’s themes of faith, frugality, steadfastness, dignity and humility. Adult experience often teaches something about the cost of abandoning traditional values.

Read the whole article at Left, Write & Centaur

Review of Wendell Berry study

Wiebe argues convincingly that imagination functions as a hermeneutical key for Berry. Wiebe recognizes that Berry does not attempt to develop a consistent program or systematic ethic. Wiebe recognizes that through his fiction, Berry, like other great writers, functions on the “subflooring” of an ethic, what we might call a pre-ethic. As Wiebe points out, great literature does not engage the human will first, rather the imagination (25). Therefore, Wiebe interprets what Berry attempts to do in his fiction as parables. His storytelling does not attempt to provide models for moral instruction, but parables about experiences of people with neighbors, enemies, misfits, and strangers. Experiential communities are not idealized, have no romanticized heroes and are unsystematic—they are never “complete.” Wiebe makes his case by leading the reader through an analysis of how Berry uses his fictional characters as parables of life in its fullest and frailest measures—with chapters focusing on Old Jack Beechum, Jayber Crow, and Hannah Coulter. Wiebe could have added weight to his argument by consulting David Buttrick’s works on the function of biblical parables. Buttrick argues that biblical parables do not intend to provide morsels of morality to live by. Rather, they construct a “world” that combines both ordinary yet unexpected features, and then ask readers how they would make decisions in that constructed world. Parables draw readers into a world and challenge the shallowness and exploitations in our present culture.

Read the complete article by D. Dixon Sutherland at Reading Religion.