I’m not going to lie: I chose this book because I liked the title and the cover. When I spotted the book at my local Oxfam books, I had vaguely heard the name ‘Wendell Berry’, but I was mostly just drawn to the sparse cover image of the cracked, winter branches. I also liked the title-The Peace of Wild Things-the tension there between ‘peace’ and ‘wild’. And even though I’m not a super outdoorsy person I often enjoy poetry that deals directly with nature and the natural world (for example, I love Mary Oliver). So when I read on the back that Berry is considered ‘the poet laureate of America’s heartland’ and writes (according to a quote from The Washington Post) ‘with calm and sanity out of the wilderness’, I was intrigued.
This is a very tender and gentle collection. Wendell Berry is, interestingly, both a poet and a farmer who has been writing since the 1960s (maybe even earlier, the oldest poems excerpted here are from the 60s). So he’s lived a long life and while a lot of these poems (which are a mixture from several of his previous collections) deal with themes of farming, the cycles of nature, family and marriage, it was neat to see the odd poem sprinkled in that spoke to the political climate in which he was writing. There was one poem in here called ‘Against the War in Vietnam’ which was a pretty straightforward kind of protest-poem, but more interesting as a marker of the time.
A significantly stronger poem which was one of my favorites out of the whole book was called ‘To a Siberian Woodsman’. This poem looks at how the political animosity between the USA and Russia shouldn’t extend to animosity between Russian and American people (such as the poet himself and the imagined ‘Siberian Woodsman’ he talks to). He imagines the woodsman going about a day of ‘long labour in the forest’, similar to Berry’s own days on his farm in Kentucky, and hopes that, if one day they could meet, that they could ‘stand clear in the gaze of each other’, free from ‘official hates’. That they could connect as people who love their land, their families, the homes they’ve built. I honestly don’t know why this poem hit me so hard or was my favorite from the whole collection, but it was just such an earnest resistance: to try and relate to this imagined Russian man at a time when (I’m assuming) anti-Russian sentiment was quite high in the US. This is quite a powerful sentiment and more resonant to me than the more overtly anti-war poems. I was so moved by lines in the last stanza: ‘there is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with/you in silence beside the forest pond.’ How beautiful!
I will say that overall the collection did not blow me away, but there were little gems here and there that I enjoyed. He writes especially well about the passage of time: he’s got an amazing poem to his children called ‘Our Children, Coming of Age’, where he describes generations like this big dance, the youngest generation dancing out in front and the older ones behind, sprawling backwards out in a ‘great circle’. His children ‘move now/towards your partners’ while the dying generation dances away from them, ‘towards the horizon of light’. It was so lovely, a great image and concept.
Throughout Berry speaks in this extremely accessible and ‘plain’ language, which I think is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ for poetry, just a choice. I’d say he’s definitely someone to go for if you enjoy Mary Oliver (although I think her poems have more of a sassiness, a wit and a pep in their step than these poems).
I’d also suggest to give him a go if you enjoy Rupi Kaur (some of his shorter poems actually made me think of her, although they deal with different themes, the format was reminiscent of hers). For those who don’t know who that is, Kaur is a poet who became famous on Instagram and has been much maligned by some traditional poetry outlets. But, truth be told, I like her poems perfectly fine – they’re not my favorite thing, but they’re short and sweet, often accompanied by little sketches and I think they’re less simplistic than sometimes they get credit for. Kind of an unusual comparison to the draw, since I highly doubt Berry is on Instagram, but there you have it. (And speaking of technology: Berry is concerned, and rightfully so, about the mind getting pulled out of the real world and into the ‘dry circuits of machines’, which felt very relevant as I was reading. And all of his poems against or about deforestation seem (sadly) very relevant as well.)
So I would recommend him as a poet if you’re particularly interested in any of the topics I’ve just described or if you’re looking for a friendly and wise poet who is extremely readable (even if you don’t read tons of poetry). This collection I reckon is a good one to start with too since it’s got extracts from several of his other books, so you get a taster! Did I discover a new favorite poet? No, not really. Did I spend some enjoyable evenings reading these tender, quiet poems? Absolutely.
So what do you think of Wendell Berry? Have you read him before? Does he seem like a poet you’d enjoy?
Thanks so much for reading! Have a lovely weekend. 🙂