Thursday, April 26, 2012


Wendell Berry

I've watched Wendell Berry's NEH speech (linked below, go for it). He's not a great speaker, too dry, a bit feeble (don't blame him, it's hard work having a conscience), lacking a humor that is important to start into and thread a long speech, though a few in the audience admit to their opening moments of nervous laughter.

Of course the speech has a great theme: affection, and written well by the farmer/poet who has shown the same in many of his best poems.

I note almost all the past NEH speakers are from safe ground: no Gary Snyder, no Noam Chomsky, no Susan Sontag, no Studs Terkel, no Amiri Baraka. We continue to die a slow death.

I have to say a color guard at the start of the program, and two holding rifles (loaded?), doesn't make me feel comfortable for anyone in the audience. Its choreography looked clumsy indoors, even a parody. Recent blitzed minds holding US service rifles and what they have done with them is inches from one day one of these militants turning it on the audience. Or the speaker.

The aura of the pre-speech felt like faded glory. A much younger writer should have been chosen to read the Berry poem ( we are talking here of sustainability, right? ). I know they have young and authentic Kentucky poets and writers all over the blue grass state. Our moderator had to make sure the speech afterwards was thoroughly rinsed with bleach by saying it didn't reflect the opinions of the US government (to say the least!). Somehow it is lost on those in power that a poet, teacher, farmer, neighbor, essayist like Berry — who has made a lifetime of books (and readers) to fill whole shelves and with the potential of being stocked in every library around the world — is the voice of the citizen, and so the greater voice of any government.

Of the writers Wendell Berry bravely learned and quoted from: Wallace Stegner, Wes Jackson, Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold and even E.M. Forster — except in their regional roosts (Leopold/Wisconsin etc) just go try to find these authors' books in your local bookstore. You say you no longer have a local bookstore? Ah, yes, more of the problem.

Wendell Berry is hardly a modern Henry David Thoreau, as he's often described. That distinction might better be served by his friend the late Harlan Hubbard. Get out there and beat the bushes for Hubbard's "Walden" of a sort — his masterpiece volume Payne Hollow.

It's long been known Berry doesn't use a computer. I'm far but a good example for one using modern conveniences — though it could be argued that one, like Berry, who calls himself an environmentalist and is often championed as one — is, in fact, out of touch with the current environment without a computer. Before your backwoods brains boil over, think about it. In this case, a computer as tool. As accessibility. As electronic pathway and still keeping all the trees. As canoe. Some computer users have the agility to glide.

For this speech Thoreau would have definitely shown up open collared, quoted John Brown, Walt Whitman and perhaps passages from the Gita, and told the authorities there would be no speech until they get rid of the armed soldiers who have nothing to arm at such a speech. He would have made some people unhappy. Some of those unhappy would then make their own stormy speeches and articles how Thoreau once almost burned down his town with a got-away grass fire. All true, he was an adventurous young man. Balanced and sustained everything he touched with an exploratory and inventive way. To this day he has no one, like John Muir in the west, who can rival his hardscrabbled and persistent methods. A whole other era, a whole other heaven — a time of foot-to-mind powers. Both fellows were hikers, dreamers, doers, travelers, mystics, working authors, field hands, respectful trespassers.

Wendell Berry is a farmer in the truest sense, with a long family heritage. I can close my eyes and imagine this speech being said on a milking stool, late in the day, dim lights in all the barn windows, and everything in the barn, including the pesky swallows that nest, falling peacefully asleep.

photo: guy mendes


Luster said...


I hope you'll consider a part two for this entry. I'd really be interested to hear your reaction to the speech itself as well as the speaker. I will say from our one visit with him he is a very funny man with a great laugh, but this might not have been the occasion or the topic that displayed that.

Hens by the door, peonies blooming, thunderstorms on the way.


Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...


I'm a long admirer of Wendell Berry's writings and example. He's tremendous.

The occasion of the speech and the place is mainly my complaint — I saw and heard very little affection. If you're coming to talk the talk of affection, then I believe we have to hear it, see it, know it is in our presence.

If you wish to save the earth, one must speak to the youngsters and the new earth, and likewise enlist one to read one of your poems. Show sustainability at work right on the stage. Prove your point. Insist (with affection).

24 degrees here this morning. No peonies, at the moment, are happy.

affectionately, Bob

Luster said...


I read the essay and am just now listening. He does sound weary and the event frame alien. I suspected your affection for Berry long ago and had it reaffirmed only yesterday when Long-Legged House appeared among the essential book tools. Stickers stick together. My hope is that the message of the essay he read might reach a few ears that it is not so native to it.

Yes, affectionately,

Luster said...

That last sentence should have read:

My hope is that the message of the essay he read might reach a few ears that are not so native to it.

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Your hope, Mike, is one we definitely share.

Again, I understand fully why the good man sounds weary. Today, I sound weary, and I'm only dealing with unruly land trespassers who don't wish to be civil nor listen to reason about property and its use. A theme Berry also touches on here in his fine talk.

Yes, his book Long-Legged House is my bible of a sort, found in 1968 in easy going paperback and held to this day in a bookcase shrine with other tools of the trade.

The man makes his message. One the earth knows. However it is picked up a furthered is the next step, and then the next step. . .

about to rain, Bob

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your correspondence here, Luster and Bob. Also an admirer of Berry. Read his essays "Standing By Words" long ago; then some poems. Got back to him last year as he got down in with the Kentucky miners in their protest at the Governor's office, over night, maybe even a fortnight. Berry earned some youthful respect there, I can tell you.

Especially liked what you said here, Bob — "If you wish to save the earth, one must speak to the youngsters and the new earth, and likewise enlist one to read one of your poems. Show sustainability at work right on the stage. "

Myself, trying to work the way of poems, like my "indra's net" out of print and looking for a publisher, and new poems writing themselves, almost.

I think an important contemporary poet, CAConrad, and a young man himself, from Philadelphia, is engaging young people in what he calls "(Soma)tic poetry, of the BODY in the BODY where goes earth, before, after, and during, dirt, fluid, dank, shadow, and light Puckish aerie, spirits. They showed up at Wesleyan at least a hundred strong the other night to hear him and I was there to tell. Also, other young American poets like Brenda Iijima, Jonathan Skinner, and Heidi Lynn Staples are writing from the earth, as well as many #Occupy poets out there. ~ XO, Donna

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Like you, Donna, Brenda Iijima has a booklet from Longhouse. We were both born in northern Berkshire hills towns, at the foot of Mt. Greylock and let poems fly with birds to its summit.

I never doubted a young reader's draw to Wendell Berry — I started out myself very young, and long ago, and have read every book he published. He's been a teacher.I would have liked seeing a young person or two on the NEH stage with him reading one of his poems, showing that future of earth and sky, community, or we won't have one.

Nice to see we are all, in our letters, circling. Circles are good.

all's well, Bob