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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.
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.