Monday, 2 April 2018

The Peace Of Wild Things

I am ashamed to admit that despite having a degree in English and American Literature, despite being a writer who tries hard to grow crops on our family's organic smallholding, I had never heard of Wendell Berry.

So I'm very pleased to have discovered him via Penguin's new selection from his work, The Peace Of Wild Things. A farmer-poet and environmental activist from Kentucky, Berry has been writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction since the 1960s, but coming to his verse fresh with little knowledge of his life or his beliefs meant that I could appreciate these poems without foreknowledge or prejudice.

This is wonderful stuff. Arranged more or less chronologically, the selection contains extracts from collections published between 1964 and 2016. You don't need to know that the poet is an agrarian who harbours a deep distrust of globalism and of modern technology to feel his deep affinity with the land and with the natural world.

His instinct for its beauties and its seasons flows through his work, reminding me first of John Clare and Seamus Heaney, later, in the poems written as an older man, of Yeats. Like William Blake, too, he has a gift for opening up a universe of emotion by opening a tiny window on his world; a crocus, a heron, a tree.

More than anything, these poems teach us not to be so eager to rush through life, eyes on the so-called prize. They underline the beauty of the process of living, from youth to maturity through to death, and of doing so in harmony with the earth's natural rhythms. There is anger in his rejection of orthodox profit-led farming, of bureaucracy, of war, of government bullying.

But there is a deeper peace underlying his appreciation of the ancestral land he farms, the family he loves, and of the power of words themselves to convey the numinous and the profound.

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