“April is the cruelest of months, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land” — so wrote T.S. Eliot in the much-cited first two lines of “The Waste Land.”
April is also National Poetry Month. Had he lived today, Eliot may have rewritten those lines to say that “April is the cruelest of months, breeding/poems out of a dead land.” For the poetry of the last 20 years is, in so many ways, bred out of a dead land, soil on which multitudes sow and toil but few reap. Many people today continue to love and read poetry; but many less continue to read and love poetry written in the last forty years. There are thousands of outlets for publishing poetry, and tens of thousands of poets, but the number of readers in any given city of today’s poets might not fill a middling pub. Even poets don’t read the poetry of their contemporaries.
One clue for this dearth of readers and the plenitude of poets may be found in the field of post-modern painting. Visual artists of the last 50 to 60 years have stopped, for the most part, trying to connect with the common man, the guy in the streets, through representational art and have instead focused their efforts and their talents on either shocking viewers or on creating works so abstract and obscure that only patrons with a Ph.D. in art can appreciate their form and meaning.
Like these artists, many poets have forgotten that their audience could be larger than a few other poets and a wayward fan or two. Readers who doubt this statement need only open a recent copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and compare work of the poets born after 1940 to that of the poets going back to Chaucer. In most cases, Chaucer’s Middle English is more easily comprehended than some of the modernist and postmodernist verse.
There are, fortunately, exceptions which give those of us who love poetry some small consolation. There are poets — Fred Chappell (a Canton native), for instance, or Mary Oliver — whose work appeals to those outside of the university or some tight circle of poets, whose words are still comprehensible without need of a dictionary or a psychiatrist. One such poet is Wendell Berry.
Berry, the author of more than 50 books of fiction, essays, and poetry, a farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, who is a strong advocate for the land and for simplicity, has recently written Leavings: Poems (Counterpoint Press, ISBN 978-158243-534-3, 2010, $23). Here again, as in his other poetry, Berry reveals his passions for the vanishing land and for nature, his Robinson Jefferson distaste for big government, his advocacy of small enterprises over large ones. Here he writes of a stream, Camp Branch:
When we who know you by name
are gone, what will they call you?
When our nation has fallen as all
things fall, when the Constitution
Is only another paper god, prayed to
and lied to by only another
autocrat, what will they call you?
Given his age — Berry will turn 76 in August — it is only natural perhaps that the poet should turn his thoughts toward death and what may lie beyond the grave. This short poem may well encapsulate Berry’s religious beliefs:
I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.
I have no love
except it come from Thee.
Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.
In the three line“Like Snow,” Berry writes beautifully of the idea of work:
Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.
The last poem of Leavings perhaps sums up the themes of the book — and of Berry’s writings:
By its own logic, greed
finally destroys itself,
as Lear’s wicked daughters
learned to their horror, as
we are learning to our own.
What greed builds is built
by destruction of the materials
and lives of which it is built.
Only mourners survive.
This is the “creative destruction”
of which learned economists
speak in praise. But what is made
by destruction comes down at last
to a stable floor, a bed
of straw, and for those with sight
light in darkness.
Leavings is not Berry’s strongest work, but it does grant us yet another audience with a man who has lived by his principles and who still has much to teach us.
In Strays (ISBN 978-0-9749199-1-1, $14.95), Jeanne Webster tells the story of Jane Morgan, a young woman whose relationship with her boyfriend is ending and who has just lost her job as a staff reporter for an Atlanta newspaper. Offered the use of a cabin in the mountains for a month, Jane is settling into her retreat when she falls and hits her head. When she recovers consciousness, she discovers that she has mysteriously acquired the ability to hear the voices of plants and animals around her.
Her friendship with Max, a stray dog, with Grandmother Spider, the Great Snake, and others enable Jane to realize that not only are human beings more deeply connected to the planet and its creatures than they ever realize, but that beyond the world of the seen lies another deeper, sacred reality.