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National Poetry Month and Kentuckian Wendell Berry

Posted: Apr 27, 2009

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been musing over one of my favorite poems that I keep posted on the door of my refrigerator. It is  "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry. I read the poem nearly every day. Reading it helps me stay focused on what really matters in life and helps me remember how little control I really have over anything.

Poetry has always been my mainstay. For me, a day without poetry is not just a day without sunshine, it is almost a day without air. I need poetry to live--certainly to live well. Berry writes about living well. His good life consists not of material possessions or financial success but of living in harmony with the natural world (including our fellow creatures, both animal and human), cooperating with nature, and being a good steward of the earth and all that is in it. Nature sustains Berry and his poem sustains me.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of 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 in 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 for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

I am fortunate to live on Elk River and thus can look out daily on the place "where the wood drake rests and the great heron feeds." I draw great comfort from knowing that the wild things "do not tax themselves with forethought of grief." Along with Mary Oliver's "The Wild Geese"  ("you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves"), Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things" reminds me that I, too, am part of nature and I, too, can find peace in "the grace of the world."

Author and activist Wendell Berry, who is sometimes better known for his novels and essays about nature and the environment than his poetry, has published nearly three dozen volumes of poetry and is the recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Berry, a farmer himself for most of his life, is an outspoken defender of agrarian values. He believes in sustainable agriculture, responsible husbandry, fugality, reverence for life, and connection to place. His poetry and other writings celebrate these vlaues.

I had the honor of meetingt the gentle and gracious Wendell Berry at a conference several years ago, and I was hoping to see him again this April. Due to the inclement weather in the south on April 2nd,  I was unable to attend the AEC Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Berry received the Cleanth Brook Medal for Lifetime Achievement. The list of speakers for this three day conference (April 2-4) was a veritable Who's Who of Southern literature including Will Campbell, Rita Dove, Dr. Louis Rubin, Jr, John Shelton Reed, Fred Hobson, Nastasha Trethewey, Roy Blount, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, and several dozen other literary luminaries.

For more about contemporary southern poets see the Swampland interview with Pulitizer Prize winning poet Nastasha Trethewey and essays by Swampland guest writer Alabama poet Diann Blakely. To read some of Blakely's poems, click on Thicket.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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Dianne says...

Penne, I love that poem, and like Peg, needed you to introduce me to Wendell Berry. Thanks! Dianne

clements says...

I love this poem and Wendell Berry. We just hatched five Carolina Wrens from our garage, and all made it! We have two pair of nesting Wood Ducks that I think have three to four fledglings apiece in two of our neighbors handmade duck boxes. Lastly, we have a nesting pair of Bald eagles at the end of Elk Estates where one can walk underneath the actual tree. I am teaching British Romantic unit and will borrow from Wordworth and conclude nature is "The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.Longtime reader new commenter.

pegfarlow says...

Hey Sis, you introduced me to Wendell Berry and I am forever grateful. Thank you for the tribute!

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