Kentucky Psalms: Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013

This DayIn an interview with Anne Husted Burleigh (Crisis, January 2000), Wendell Berry had this to say:

Scripture says God loved the world, that the Incarnation happened because God loved the world. The implication of his Sabbath rest at the very beginning was that it was a day of appreciation and approval of what he had done. It seems wrong to condemn the world and wrong to refuse its decent pleasures. Why would you deny yourself a decent pleasure, which is the signal and sign of heaven in this world, in order to get to heaven? It doesn’t make any sense—to me.

Indeed, his Sabbath poems, taken on Sunday walks through the Kentucky countryside when other people thought he should be at church with his wife and children, offer rich appreciations of the direct, God-drenched world in which Berry lives. Since 1979, he’s written poems in honor of rest, reflection, and consideration of all we have and all we lack in this world. This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013 brings together Berry’s poetic work, reminding us that he’s as terrific a poet as he is an essayist and novelist. For all the recent attention given to Berry’s prophetic essays and lectures about taking care of the Earth and its communities, This Day reveals that his poetry might comprise his grandest vision.

Not that it looks grand, not at a glance. Take this short, plain poem from 1991. Here it is in full:

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.

That poem is not quite haiku but it is just as rigorous in its structure—three lines, six syllables apiece—and nature-focused as that ancient Asian form. Indeed, Berry’s rigorous attention to form—a free-verse stylist, he is not—allows him, oddly, a lot of room for play. Within his straightforward sense of meter and rhythm, and his plain, conversational language, there’s room for many modes—mini-epics, sonnets, mock diary entries, monologues written in his “Mad Farmer” persona, and imagined conversations between Berry and his friends. In his poetry, Berry travels over landscapes both physical and mental. His Kentucky farm and its environs might be geographically small but they give the poet the richness and fullness of the whole world. He takes pleasure and joy in his world, in our world. It shows in the poems, which meander and loop and dance and play around in ways that Berry’s noble but sometimes stern voice as an essayist can convey only on occasion. Through poetry, Berry walks within God’s abundance.

The breadth and depth of Berry’s concerns startle me, and do the best thing poetry can do—make me pay attention to every speck of life around me, and make me appreciate what I otherwise take for granted. Though I confess using This Day as a devotional of-sorts lately, the collection’s musicality on the tongue reminds of nothing so much as the Psalms. In this sense, they are prayers, Berry’s attempts to address God directly. They share the rhythmic beauty, melancholy, riotous joy, and variety of modes of the King James Version, with which Berry is intimately familiar.

One of those modes is wit. Berry hones his sense of humor, and his grounded sense of his place in the world, often in This Day. Here’s the last stanza from a 1995 poem, which both evokes and gently plays with the Lord’s Prayer:

A Sabbath from my weariness.
I rest in an unmasking trust
Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.
The long-arising Day will break
If I should die before I wake.

By keeping the Sabbath in this way, Berry shows how married he is to his land, to his immediate community, to the people and plants and animals that sustain him, and he likewise. Marriage, to stay home and take root in the soil under your toes, means to sacrifice and worry over—to channel Tennessee Williams—how fragile it all is and how easily it can be broken. So, despite the pastoral setting, there’s heartache and rage here, too. This Day offers a full panoply of Berry’s thoughts and visions. In the absence of a memoir, which I think we’re unlikely to get from the humble Kentucky genius, This Day will have to do. It’s a quiet portrait of a man growing into a place, and growing into God’s grace, over the last 34 years. It’s not all pretty, for growth often disrupts and causes pain. (Ask any mother.) But it is beautiful, which is better than pretty anyway.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Kentucky Psalms: Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013

  1. Lois McGinnis says:

    Walter, I’ve not read any Wendell Berry for years, not since A Timbered Choir, & had forgotten how evocative they are. Thank you for reminding me about him.
    LMc

  2. Pingback: The way I read | Quiet Bubble

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