In the Company of Others
My wife loves to arrange flowers. In her next job, she says, she’ll stay home and arrange flowers and just the thought lifts her up, especially at the end of a wearying week.
Remembering that gave rise to this month’s post. Like last month, I excitedly dove into the “next up” chapter from Imagination in Place, called Sweetness Preserved -- this one about the famously betrothed poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. And like last month, the problem of how to blog about it slowly killed off all momentum.
Let’s review: Walking With Wendell began as a response to the disastrous presidential election of 2016 -- my desperate and necessary outcry cum protest. After a while, I acknowledged the ridiculousness of conjoining one of our country’s foremost moralists with the most depraved politician in US history. So I began to use these walks to carefully study, and also to preach, the gospel of community and humility that pervades everything Wendell Berry has ever written. Along the way, I asked questions, and insisted on the necessity of questions, about how to lead a Wendell Berry-worthy life, especially for us who are unsettled, uprooted. I’ve fretted in this space a lot too, unable to adequately understand and place Mr. Berrys’ politics in its given context (even while suspecting that that very thing is being expertly done by others). And my failure to attract a readership has bothered me too, and has been another WWW subplot.
Put short: this has been a personal blog in which I’ve been striving (and failing I believe), to minimize the idiosyncratic in lieu of finding and sharing some universally applicable guidance on how to live right in a world gone largely mad -- courtesy of Mr. Berry of course. I must admit, it’s a very Kenny Asher kind of project. Lofty, unapologetic and probably impossible.
Closing in on the two-year mark, I can feel my energy sapping -- my approach wearing thin.
So this month, I’m not going to recount Sweetness Preserved, even briefly. Instead, I’m going the flower-arranging route.
For me, reading Wendell Berry is a many-splendored thing. It is enlightening and energizing. Inspiring and even electrifying at times. But mostly it is just a deep, deep, soaking pleasure. I profoundly love the workings of Wendell Berry’s mind -- the tiny springs of first causes that presage his beliefs, his elaborations that flow with, or interrupt, the currents of our times, the merging into larger, ineffable waters where all intellectualizing eventually disappears -- and always, always, (miraculously, it seems to me), made comprehensible and even exquisite by his preternatural gift of linguistic depiction.
That is a devotional paragraph, yes. But what I’m describing is no different than the feeling my wife gets cutting and arranging flowers, or that her mother gets painting the light hitting the Rockies, or that Wendell Berry must get when reading a fine poem, or strolling his land. Before all else, these are pleasures, and they are valuable simply for being pleasurable.
Well my great pleasure happens to be reading Wendell Berry, and for that reason alone I’ve given myself permission to put forward three arrangements of his words and thoughts, drawn from this month’s essay from Imagination in Place. Here’s the first:
Those who are living and writing at a given time are not isolated poetry dispensers more or less equivalent to soft-drink machines, awaiting the small change of critical approval. We are, figuratively, at least, members of a community, joined together by our stories. We are inevitably collaborators. We are never in any simple sense the authors of our own work. The body of work we make for ourselves in our time is only remotely a matter of literary history. The work we make is the work we are living by, and not in the hope of making literary history, but in the hope of using, correcting so far as we are able, and passing on the art of human life, of human flourishing, which includes the arts of reading and writing poetry.
So right here on page two of the essay, Wendell has addressed one of my aforementioned frustrations -- the fact of no one gravitating to, or really appreciating, this blog of mine. He’s referring to poets of course, but I take his point to include all writers. “We are inevitably collaborators” he says, and I am immediately reassured. I’m reminded of a lesson he’s been teaching me: as we are both influenced and influencer, never are we isolated. No matter how ignored I might feel, or how much a fan-boy I might appear, what’s really happening here at WWW is a monthly enactment of my not authoring my own work. I rip off Wendell, to put it in crass capitalistic terms, in the same way that he rips off his influencers. In the exact same way that we eat one another to sustain our physical lives. Our thinking and imagination feed on the thinking and imagination of others. You’ll often hear people talk about the criticality of “story” and “narrative.” Stories are the food that our minds eat. We do not sustain ourselves, contrary to our American mythos. In both body and mind, we are sustained by others.
And the point of writing poetry? Or blog posts? Not to make literary history but to “use, correct, and pass on” the art of human flourishing. What a gorgeous sentiment. We read and write not because these are arts, but because human flourishing is an art. The art of human living requires that we join ourselves to others, that we join our creative output to our economic output, and that we join our personal knowledge to that of our community in the hopes of correcting the errors of our forebears. In so doing, we join ourselves to our progeny.
Goddamn if that isn’t my entire political and religious belief system right there. Wendell somehow got it all down in a few throw-away sentences on an essay not about politics or religion, but about two New England poets.
One of those poets, Donald Hall, led a life that ran a similar course to Wendell’s. Mr. Hall also rose in literary circles, taught at university, and then left all that to return home to rural New Hampshire. In looking back at those early years when both Hall and Berry were “outside” their lives, an older and wiser Wendell Berry shares a second beautiful arrangement:
Maybe you are outside your life when you think your past has ended. Maybe you are outside your life when you think you are outside it. I don’t know what Donald Hall in later life would say. I know only what I in later life would say. I would say, partly from knowing the story I am talking about, that though you may get a new life, you can’t get a new past. You don’t get to leave your story. If you leave your story, then how you left your story is your story, and you had better not forget it.
I am certain that the exile described here refers to those early years in both mens’ lives when, chasing the careers they were educated to chase, they left their home places in search of literary garlands. We know that Berry’s homecoming is the central fact of his autobiography. Leaving home and returning home for good -- that’s the “story” that Berry is talking about. That’s all pretty plain. But what follows in this little arrangement is the kind of observation that transcends the specifics of Wendell Berry’s life, or Donald Hall’s, and applies to all of us.
“Though you may get a new life, you can’t get a new past. You don’t get to leave your story.” What he is saying (what he is always saying), is that your life and your story are not the same thing. Your story is bigger than your life. For one thing, it includes your past, which itself includes the lives (and pasts) of your people. Your story also includes your place, because we all come from somewhere. And it includes your culture -- the preservation and transmission of memories that allow a community to know itself.
We cannot escape any of this, whether we realize it or not. Though we may sometimes decide to make a new start, or leave something behind -- and because sometimes those decisions are large, it does feel possible to "get a new life.” But in the same way that you can’t open your eyes fast enough to see what you look like in a mirror with your eyes closed, there can be no outrunning your story. You might just as well try to cut away your shadow. And so, Wendell says, the important thing isn’t whether you’re outside your life (i.e. removed physically or psychologically from all that you really are -- from your ancestors, your family, the places that sustained you, the culture that taught you), but whether you know what you’ve tried to reject. I say “tried,” because, if I’m understanding this correctly, it can’t actually be done. It’s not what you’ve turned away from that matters but how you’ve turned away, and whether your disregard contains any awareness.
If this seems heady and hard to follow, that’s because it is. Perhaps it's best just to say that here again, in an unexpected aside in this very unfamous essay, Mr. Berry is showing me how my life, dotted with losses large and small, is nevertheless perfectly complete and unfractured. As a person who worries plenty about loss, I once again find myself comforted.
Sometimes in reading Berry I have the pleasure of seeing my own thinking affirmed. Don’t we all delight in the “yes!” moment that occurs when someone else’s idea slots perfectly into our preconceived notions? This happens with some regularity when I read Wendell Berry. (Whether he’s responsible for those preconceived notions is also a question worth asking). Take for example this final arrangement, in which he explains how a critic could totally miss the beauty of Jane Kenyon’s poetry.
After a while, I believe, I figured it out. Jane Kenyon’s work, in fact, makes an unnegotiable demand upon a reader. It doesn’t demand great intellect, or learning, or even sympathy; it demands quiet. It demands that in this age of political, economic, educational and recreational pandemonium, and a concomitant rattling in the literary world, one must somehow become quiet enough to listen.
People who know me best, know that I have a taoist view of the world. Yin and yang explain everything, as best I can tell, in that energy gathers together from out of a field, acts upon a field, and dissipates into a field once more. Poetry is made of words which are the creation of the poet. But the words, as Berry observes, “form themselves within hearing.” So what’s actually happening is that the words of a poem arise from a field (the poet’s imagination and consciousness), take form (the written or spoken poem), and then, embodied, are available for a listener or reader to receive into her imagination and consciousness. Thus is the miracle of all language, and poetry, with its heightened aural quality, is a special distillate of this process.
The yin aspect of this flow -- the field -- is the state of the poet’s mind and ear as the poem is “listened” for. Berry says the poem “must live in the ear before it can live in the mind or the heart. The ear tells the poet when and how to break the silence, and when enough has been said.” Similarly, the listener is also embodying yin energy on the receiving end of a poem -- as she must be open to hearing, available to imagery, poised to receive meanings and sounds and associations. The poem itself -- it’s creation and transmission -- that’s the work of yang energy. It is a creative construction that takes a shape, takes a direction and “lives a life,” before fading back into the void.
Everything works this way. But balance is only achieved -- situations are only “furthered,” when the magnetic poles of yin and yang can play with each other. And what Berry is saying about Jane Kenyon’s poetry (and editorially, about our whole society), is that nothing can be “caught” without a quiet field for arriving upon. A poets' words and tone might be perfect, and in fact Berry says that Jane Kenyon’s tone is perfect. But without adequate quiet and stillness to hear the subtlety and soft vibration of that tone -- the poems don’t work.
We have once again arrived at this place of dis-individuation. We are not capable of individual feats, even when carried out as perfectly as a Jane Kenyon poem, without others. We create -- we put ourselves forward, and the job is still only half done -- is possibly never done, like the unfertilized egg. For many years, I lived this experience without understanding it. Pandemonium has a way of causing us to doubt ourselves, instead of making us demand the quietude that allows us to be received, attended to. It’s funny. Everyone is clamoring for attention in the midst of a national attention deficit disorder. More clamoring isn’t what we need. We need more quiet. Poets are really good at doing quiet, and this is one of the things that poets can teach us.
So much for minimizing the idiosyncratic. It’s odd, my urge to share these Wendell Berry excerpts and my strong reactions to them, knowing full well that effectively describing their effect on me it’s as likely as capturing lightning in a bottle. I chose these three arrangements not because they were thematic, but because they stood out as especially relevant to my life, and because I found them to be beautifully constructed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they resonate with one another anyhow.
The first passage about how all writers are collaborators made me feel less isolated in my blogging, and less peculiar for unabashedly extolling my singular source. The second, about not being able to leave your story, reminded me that the things I’ve loved and lost are not really part of my past. They are part of my story -- as much a part of me as my shadow. And the final arrangement about the necessity of quiet offered me another way of understanding the limitations of individuality and creative output, no matter how brilliant.
We are in the company of others. Always. Unremittingly. Unendingly. It’s reassuring to know this. Wendell Berry helps me to know it. He teaches the art of human flourishing. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do as well.