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Last week was Wendell Berry’s 85th birthday, so it seems like the right moment to feature a couple of poems from his large output. Berry could rightly be called a “prophet” in his commitment to truth-telling, in his critique of the excesses of modern life.

Like prophets through the ages, he is uncompromising–which doesn’t always make him easy to read. I’m someone who tends to busy-ness, so his examination of work and rest, “Sabbath Poem X,” is one I read often and profitably. “Questionnaire” is a more difficult, even uncomfortable, poem that pushes the limits, that asks uncomfortable questions. You might not enjoy it, may even be angered by it. That’s okay. I think that’s the measure of a good poem: that it engages us in conversation. And as I’ve thought about my own engagement with the big questions of the day, as I confess my own inclination towards pragmatism, I feel like poems such as “Questionnaire” make me think about the call for each of us–what must we do–and about the cost. What do our values require?

Sometimes we need a poet-philosopher to call us to attention and to provoke us to response.

Sabbath Poem X, 1979

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

Questionnaire
by Wendell Berry

How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy

In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security;
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

“Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

6 Comments

  • Matt Huisman says:

    First draft answers to Questionnaire: DDT would save many more Africans than mosquito nets / Plastic straws on a milkshake at the beach / Anything by Salvador Dali / I’m willing to super-size the Colorado River to bring water to LA or drain any Army Corps of Engineer designated puddle / I believe I’m supposed to say ‘a Mother’s right to choose’, but I don’t think that’s what Berry was going for.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thanks for posting these two poems, Jennifer! They go so well together as a pair. The uncomfortable questions are not too scary to grapple with, as they are part of the process of entering into real rest from the ache and sweat and ten thousand days of work.

    One mountain we the people decided we could most readily do without, (although we couldn’t do without the mineable land around it): a Black Hills peak that was known as Six Grandfathers before it was refaced. Gold and tin mineral chunks seemed more promising than the civil virtue of keeping a 1868 signed promise made with fellow humans. Gutzon Borglum was chosen as sculptor thanks to his prior project on a General Lee mountain refacement project commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Renaming the Six Grandfathers after a mining businessman/attorney is perfection in choice for a Shrine carved to honor US’s faithful devotion to the lucrative ideals of white landLording.

  • Helen P says:

    All I can say is wow! I’ve read very little of Berry. Questionnaire is a chilling poem.

    Perhaps he might be the topic when you come to Central next March.

  • Lori Witt says:

    Thank you, Thank you, for sharing Wendell Berry this morning! Just what I needed to read as the school year ramps up!

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    Both are a great read for any day.
    Thanks for sharing.

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