Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 3, 2013

On Poetry: Slow down, read the page

You should know as you read this poem that the poet, Wendell Berry, is also a farmer and a long-time outspoken advocate of small farming and local economies. His book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture,” describes the many destructive aspects of modern, mechanized agribusiness.

So, in his poem, when the speaker feels despair for the modern world, how do the wood drake and the heron help? Are birds peaceful? Not really — they fight, they defend their territory, they scrabble for food, they get injured and die.

Maybe “peace” has another connotation here.

The creatures don’t “tax their lives with forethought / of grief.” That’s it. They “rest in the grace of the world.” Which brings up another question: This world of struggle and grief—what’s “graceful” about it?

I don’t get the feeling that the poem wants to deny trouble or even exactly escape from it.

But to see it as it is, working its own way out simply step-by-step, opening itself to each moment.

When trouble comes, well, it comes. But also, this is a world of still water, and stars are waiting till night to reveal their light.

Many people say, “I don’t know how to read poetry.” Read slowly, I tell them.

Come to the poem the way the speaker in this one comes to the wild things.

Leave behind preconceived notions of what you think the poem will be like. Leave behind ideas of what poetry is.

Read slowly enough not to miss “day-blind stars,” to notice that we’re the ones who are blind to the stars, in daytime. They keep shining.

Enter the last line and let the word “free” stay with you for a while.

We throw that word around with abandon in this “land of the free.” What, exactly, does it mean here, or anywhere? In what way is the speaker “free”?

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