Monday, January 29, 2007

Kentucky's Wendell Berry

Now here's a guy who was asked to come to Stanford and teach creative writing by no less a person than the late great Wallace Stegner. No, Berry said. And no he said more than once as Stegner and Stanford pressed. Years and years later, as stories continued to pour from Berry's imagination, Stegner admitted that Berry had been right to stay on his family farm and pen literature. For if he'd come to Stanford who knows but that half or more of Berry's stories might never have been written? Not only because of time constraints - the university and students and colleagues would have kept him busy - but because Berry would have been disconnected from his ancestral land, the land that nurtures the bulk of his writing.

It's a good thing for all of us to remember. Do what you know is good for you to do, what is right for you to do, and make sure you plant yourself in an environment that allows you to do it. And maybe something else - know yourself and what's good for you better than other people do.

Berry has written so many poems and novels and short stories and essays that I would have to write a dissertation on this blog to discuss half of them. So let's just put it like this: Like many writers before him, Berry has created a fictional world full of houses and acreages and plants and people and weather that goes on for hundreds of stories. This gives him the freedom to talk about everything under the sun. Suppose Emerson or Thoreau had hunkered down and created a county and a town with their imaginations and then went on to write a thousand tales about the people in that county and town? Or suppose Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg decided to do the same? Bend their poetry to prose and create an entire new world of personalities and families and all the windfall of generations over decades of living and birthing and working and praying and dying? Lots of times when I read Berry's words I think of wooden hoe handles rubbed smooth by two or three generations of hands, I think of split rail fencing, I think of soil and air and rain. So I think especially of Frost. And then I think of the eternities that such rough-hewn writing evokes. His works are all about connectedness and the tale is told in a lifetime of different ways.

Berry's spirituality is of a Christian bent. He is not shy about admitting that. The way his Christianity bends may not be to everyone's taste. But then, your spirituality is not to everyone's taste, nor is mine. In any case, good things grow out of his Christ soil. Honest things. Straightforward things. Maybe you'd like his writing, maybe not. Find out.

If you like poetry, start with his poems. There's lots of them and you're sure to find some gems that bear down well on your soul. As for his world-creating stories of fictional Port William, Kentucky, where does one start? At the beginning? Maybe not. There might be a time when it's right for you to go back to the beginning like an historian and start reading from there. Until then, why not just drop right down into the middle of the tales and see what happens? His stories stand on their own. I would tell you to pick up the book "Fidelity" and begin with the title story of that collection of short fiction. You can listen to me or not.

Berry is still with us. Keep that in mind in case you want to write him or visit him or go to a book signing. It's good to have him around. Good to have him talking and walking the land. It makes the world less lonely.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.