Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sunlit Silence

I like to classify poets in my own mind in a couple of ways; or rather, there a few major categories of things that I think poets do, and some do some categories better than others: the best poets in their best poems strike a perfect balance. One set of my categories is "idea" and "music". George Herbert was such a fantastic poet he usually was musical, but I think his poems are more driven by thought/idea. T.S. Eliot is the same; but for both, their best poems cannot be understood without reading them as music, without sounding them. Gerard Manley Hopkins was the paradigm "music" poet -- in many of his poems, I have no idea what he is saying, but I will read them again and again just to hear the birds singing. Another set of categories are the senses -- poets usually focus on a couple of the senses when they create a scene; again with Eliot as an example, I think he focuses on sound and movement, less so on smell and textures, little on sight.

Wendell Berry is one of the easiest to categorize, I think: in my categories he is an "idea" poet and a "sight" poet. Thus at his best he is a good but not great poet; at his worst he is an essayist pressing "enter" every couple words and after a handful of poems you feel as though you've read several philosophy essays, and you can see a lot of birds and trees, but can't hear or smell or feel them very well. For instance what if his poem (left) were just lightly edited with an eye (haha) to its sound (yes, I am making criminal presumptions, but the sound of the last line as he wrote it criminally offends the injunction therein and if he did that intentionally then he is too clever by half and that proves my point anyway):

... Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Accept what comes from silence.
[delete]
Of the little words that come
from the silence, like a prayer
prayed back to one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence whence it came.
~from Further Words, "How to be a poet (to remind myself)"

On the other hand, here are some of his poems I have been enjoying, in order of increasing excellence.

"The Future."
For God's sake, be done
with this jabber of "a better world."
What blasphemy! No "futuristic"
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this, though they
foretell inevitably a worse.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.
~In a Country Once Forested
{See? Some good lines, but mostly the essayist who presses enter a lot}

"II."
When we convene again
to understand the world,
the first speaker will again
point silently out the window
at the hillside in its season,
sunlit, under the snow,
and we will nod silently,
and silently stand and go.
~ Sabbaths 2000
{Now, there is some "sound" here, but mostly this is the marriage of vision and idea with the emphasis still on idea; the next with a more balanced role for vision}

"III."
As timely as a river
God's timeless life passes
{though "passes ... passes ... past", I would
prefer "flows ... flows ... through"}
Into this world. It passes
Through bodies, giving life,
And past them, giving death.
The secret fish leaps up
Into the light and is
Again darkened. The sun
Comes from the dark, it lights
The always passing river,
Shines on the great-branched tree,
And goes. Longing and dark,
We are completely filled
With breath of love, in us
Forever incomplete.
~Sabbaths 2000

And finally, Wendell Berry at his very best (which is very good):

"VI. (for Jonathan Williams)"
The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice
of this place, sings in the tops of the tallest sycamores,
but one day he came twice to the railing of my porch
where I sat at work above the river. He was too close
to see with binoculars. Only the naked eye could take him in,
a bird more beautiful than himself killed and preserved
by the most skilled taxedermist, more beautiful
than any human mind, so small and inexact,
could hope ever to remember. My mind became
beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only
of himself alive in the only moment of his life.
He had upon him like a light the whole
beauty of the living world that never dies.

Sunday, November 23, 2008