Category Poetry

Two Wendell Berry Poems on Humility

From his Kentucky farm where he has long disdained use of a computer and rails against modern sins such as strip mining, industrial agriculture and unrestrained market capitalism, 84-year-old Wendell Berry occupies a unique place in contemporary American letters.

Throughout his prolific output of novels, short stories, essays, and poetry totaling some 50 volumes, he is at once the stodgiest of conservatives, a thoughtful curmudgeon standing stoutly for the old ways of fidelity to family, place, religion, and modesty of expression.

At the same time, he remains a darling of Subaru-driving outdoorsy liberals who cotton to his outspoken environmentalist views, pacifism and anti-materialism.

Personally, I have been both inspired and exasperated by him, but I have never for a second doubted his sincerity or intelligence or devotion, and he is always worthy of attention.

Berry’s is a world of overalls and unlocke...

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Everyday Ecstasy: A Mary Oliver Appreciation

When poet Mary Oliver died a couple of weeks ago, I suspect many readers responded much like I did: “Oh no!”

That’s an almost universal response when anyone we know well dies suddenly—and we are both surprised and crestfallen. If the deceased is just an acquaintance or a public figure whom we don’t know personally, our response tends to be more muted: “Gosh, that’s too bad.”

But Mary Oliver? “Oh, no!!”

Part of this, for those familiar with her work, has to do with the sheer fact that writers whom we enjoy and tend to go back to enter our brains and our consciousness and take up residence there like the very best virus. That rare kind that actually improves our health rather than decimates it.

These writers become like lifelong friends, with whom we carry on a dialogue of sorts...

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Beauty and Banality in Jane Kenyon’s “Chrysanthemums”

With a first line stating “The doctor averted his eyes,” we sense that whatever the title suggests in this crystalline Jane Kenyon poem, it will not be a rapturous ode to flowers. Then comes the second line containing the word “diagnosis,” and we know we will likely be traversing some troubling ground, ultimately revealed as a series of snapshots coalescing around her husband and fellow poet Donald Hall’s colon cancer in 1989.

Nevertheless, chrysanthemums do play a role.

Hall, 24 years older than Kenyon and her professor at the University of Michigan before marrying her in 1972, survived his first bout with the illness that Kenyon chronicled in this poem, then fought off its return three years later when it had metastasized to his liver and doctors gave him slim odds for recovery.

Four months ago, he died at the ripe age of 89, a former poet laureate of the United States and a well-respected professor, ...

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The Ship That Never Comes In: Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please”

A friend was telling me recently that she had hosted a childhood friend for a weekend visit, and in the runup to it she had greatly looked forward to the time they were to spend together. As it turned out, she beamed, it was wonderful and all she had hoped for. Which, she noted, was a great relief, because “It doesn’t always turn out that way.”

Inded it doesn’t.

In his much-anthologized poem, “Next, Please,” English poet Philip Larkin, a brooding sort as perhaps a majority of poets this side of Mary Oliver are, suggested that it almost never does, and that this human penchant for almost giddy anticipation and “expectancy” is doomed to suffer when it collides with reality.

It’s as if our imaginations sabotage us, outpacing our ability to create or at least appreciate the emotional experiences we had been so eagerly anticipating.

Or, as Paul McCartney’s mama told him in three short wo...

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The Maelstrom of War: Louis Simpson’s “Carentan O Carentan”

In June, 1944, Carentan was a French town of some 4,000 people that tourist guides might have described as “bucolic” just a few years earlier. But following within days of the Allied Forces’ invasion of Normandy on June 6, it became the scene of a pitched, frantic battle between German and American troops that took place from June 10-15. The prize was access to high ground and ultimate control of two beaches—codenamed “Omaha” and “Utah”—that flanked Carentan and would prove pivotal to the invasion’s success and the final vanquishing of the German military machine less than a year later.

Among those American troops was Louis Simpson, a 21-year-old immigrant from Jamaica. Simpson had been studying poetry and literature at Columbia University but left to join the war effort.

Born to an upper crust attorney father of Scotch descent and a Russian mother, Simpson endured the sudden, unexplai...

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