Agrarian Poetics

Over the past four decades, Wendell Berry has been one of the most prolific writers in America, averaging around a book each year.  Much of this output has been in the realm of poetry, for which he has been honored with the T.S. Eliot Award, the Aiken Taylor Award, the John Hay Award, and other lesser prizes.  Unlike his fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, Berry has not yet come to be known as the General Pinochet of American Letters for the sheer weight of his medals.  Still, the man has been lionized—particularly by anti-industrialists, who share his scorn for modernity if not his resolution to live an agrarian life.  As a long-time farmer-poet, Wendell not only talks the talk; he walks the walk.

The problem with any individual who has become an institution or cultural metaphor is that a gap inevitably separates his reputation from his achievement.  After all, Michael Jordan missed more shots than he made, and Babe Ruth held the major-league record for career home runs and strikeouts until he was superseded in both categories by Henry Aaron.  By the same token, one is likely to find both hits and misses in a volume of poetry by Wendell Berry.  When he is least effective, his verse reads like prose arranged in lines—it tells much, shows little, and sings not at all.  If these qualities seem jarring, it is largely because a good Wendell Berry poem is very good indeed.  Typically,...

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