February 20, 2012

Wendell Berry and William Carlos Williams

The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
by Wendell Berry

I've always lived in the northern forest. I grew up near Lake Esquagama (Ojibwe translation: waters flowing to Superior) and have lived for many years in Duluth in view of the Great Lake, and the farthest inland seaport. For many years, I've loved to read Wendell Berry's poems and savor his connection to place. His voice rings with the solid ground on which he stands.  

Wendell writes an impressive critical analysis of the writing of William Carlos Williams. Honoring Williams' commitment to his own local community, Berry praises his efforts to find a language that expresses Rutherford, New Jersey and the people and things of that locale.  At the time Williams was writing, New Jersey was considered "provincial."  Most of his poetry peers traveled and lived in Europe.

As a doctor, he was of use to his community and as a poet, he sought to be of use to Rutherford and America. Instead of separating himself, becoming academic or writing in the classic forms with meter and rhyme, Williams had the courage to inhabit his own place in the world of writing. Berry borrows the ecological term "local adaption" to express the effort to connect oneself to place.  This is the goal of the writer, to find the right relation to the land and community where he or she lives; Berry contrasts this with the focus on self or autonomy in the phrase "identity crisis." 

"Williams in his writing moved more and more decisively toward a sense of the poet as a local maker of a kind of order, spokesman and teacher...Since his time, the understanding of place as the right context and measure of work has become as urgent and articulate among some scientists as among some poets."

Berry also defends Williams' proscription, "no ideas except in things."  It was not that he was mindless or unconcerned with thought:
"He was accepting a limit (for himself and his work, first of all) that would protect things from the limitlessness of abstract ideas, abstract definition, abstract rules and case. Things--or, by implication, persons, places and things--properly mark the limits of ideas."

It is such a pleasure to read Wendell Berry. He so fully inhabits his place in the world, he brings the wisdom and time of his land to all that he writes.  Berry inspires me to grasp the roots of my own heritage here in this place where my grandparents arrived as immigrants from Finland. Finland also is a land of northern forest. As a child, I was aware that my family and the community where not the first people to dwell in that place.  I knew it because I'd found in the forest of Norway pines where I lived burial mounds of the Native American culture; the mounds were large, like small hills in an otherwise level ground, and my mother had warned me to respect those grounds, not to climb on or slide down, as a child is tempted. This feeling of people before my people, a layer of history, was strong even as other areas of our land was unearthed and the iron ore taken.

Now, I am contemplating the forest as ecosystem and searching for a language, my language, to express its reach and tangle and roots, its constant change.  Wendell Berry rightly gives his blessing to all poets who go deeply into their local culture--the people, places and things-- and in doing so, strengthen it.

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