November 1, 2016 / Derek Vreeland

Wendell Berry to the Rescue: Reading Poetry in an Age of Angry Rhetoric

I have not always been a lover of poetry. I cannot say now that I love to read poetry, but I have experienced poetry’s healing properties.

I learned the importance of reading poetry from Eugene Peterson. Reading good poetry and fiction is necessary to develop the kind of imagination that can appreciate the full depth of the Scriptures that shape our faith.

The Hebrew prophets spoke in metaphors which form a kind of poetry of its own. If we read prophets, like Isaiah, simply to squeeze all the analytical meaning out of it, we will miss the beauty and power of Isaiah’s inspired words. When we see the poetry in Isaiah’s prophecy, the words produce a new kind of hope in us. Consider these words from Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them….They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah is describing the reign of Messiah from the “stump of Jesse,” upon whom will rest the Spirit of wisdom and understanding. Messiah’s reign will not be marked by animals no longer eating each other and child leaders and destructionless mountain tops. Rather his reign will be marked by the kind of peace that comes from knowing the heart of God in a real and life-altering way.  

Crazy Angry Words

Not only does poetry help our study of the Bible, poetry may just be what we need to save us from the volatile, divisive, insane, ridiculous, angry public discourse taking place in this election season. When I open social media and scroll through my news feed, I wonder if people have indeed lost their minds. Crazy, angry words are polluting our collective consciousness with toxic hate. We need a way out. We need somebody to rescue us.

Poetry may save us from the angry public discourse taking place in this election season. Share on X

One bright spot in this unstable election season is Christians, evangelicals in particular, have been given the opportunity to test what we believe. Is Jesus really Lord? Is the Bible the grounding narrative that shapes us? Do we take seriously the command to make disciples of the counter-intuitive, mercy-giving, humility-walking way of Jesus? Is our hope in the coming of the Kingdom whereby God will reconcile all things and make all things right?

I appreciate Missio Alliance giving us space to confess our sins and reassert our commitment to Christ and the mission of the Church. If you haven’t read “A Confession by American Evangelicals Amid the 2016 Presidential Election,” please read it know and consider signing.

Do we take seriously the command to make disciples of the counter-intuitive way of Jesus? Share on X

In the spirit of that confession, I want to add a practice that can wash clean our minds and imaginations from the ugly, toxic words flooding news outlets and recycling with increasing speed throughout the world of social media. The practice is simple and hopeful. Read a poem. Seriously. Log off social media for 15 minutes and read a poem. If you need a place to start, may I suggest Wendell Berry and start with his poem “To A Siberian Woodsman.”

Getting to Know Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, author, poet, essayist, and activist. My high school English teacher and track coach, who is now retired, has said Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. I agree. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. I have benefited greatly from his essays, novels, and short stories. His poetry is a good introduction to his work.

He wrote “To A Siberian Woodsman” in the late 1960s during the cold war when we were taught to hate the Russians. This poem carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. He is both a poet and a farmer, which offers credentials much more substantial than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels. These lackluster “prophets” are lost in a mixed-up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology. Berry isn’t like that. He is a prophet like Amos, the fig farmer.

Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. Share on X

In this poem, Berry writes about love and peace, and letting go of the idol of nationalism. Berry draws upon the beauty of creation to reconsider his Russian counterpart, not as an enemy, but as a co-laborer. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but do not read it with too critical of an eye. Do not read it with your defenses up. Do not read it looking for things you disagree with. There is time for critical evaluation, but as with all forms of art, do not start there. Instead start with an open mind and heart.

Find a quiet place and read these words. Read them multiple times. Read them aloud.

Remain open until this poem speaks to you and then, if you must, evaluate what you are hearing.

I invite you to read and listen.

Perhaps God will grant you ears to hear.

Perhaps these words can wipe clean your imagination.

(after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
by Wendell Berry (1968)

You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
like people familiar with the land they were born in.

You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
Over you is the dream
of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
you in the trees.

I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
your son in your tracks.
You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
of your own voice
or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
and you take the path beside it.
I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.

And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
that I should desire the burning of your house or the
destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
rivers, and the silence of the birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
these pictures of your face?
Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
you in the forest?
And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
gladly talk and visit and work with me.

I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
official hates,
so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.

There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.