David wondered aloud if Jim Harrison and Wendell Berry knew each other, and my initial response was that they would have little in common. Harrison, former long-time Leelanau County resident, has always been given to excessive eating and drinking and to recounting wildness and excess in his novels, whereas Berry’s novels, with their noble and dignified rural characters, seem to come to us from another age. Harrison has lived in several different parts of the United States (Michigan, New York, Arizona, Montana), while Berry is rooted in Kentucky farmland and his small local community. But both men write poetry that tugs at readers’ hearts because it so clearly comes directly out of the poets’ deepest feelings.
Here is a poem from the new Wendell Berry collection:
“A Standing Ground”
Flew fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng, though hit be smal . . .*
However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
Into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.
And here, from Harrison’s Songs of Unreason (2011), is one of his:
I want to go back to that wretched old farm
on a cold November morning eating herring
on the oil tablecloth at daylight, the hard butter
in slivers and chunks on rye bread, gold-colored
homemade butter. Fill the woodbox, Jimmy.
Clots of cream in the coffee, hiss and crackle
of woodstove. Outside it’s been the hardest freeze
yet but the heels still break through into the earth.
A winter farm is dead and you want to head for the woods.
In the barn the smell of manure and still-green hay
hit the nose with the milk in the metal pails.
Grandpa is on the last of seven cows,
tugging their dicklike udders, a squirt in the mouth
for the barn cat. My girlfriend loves another
and at twelve it’s as if all the trees have died.
Sixty years later seven hummingbirds at the feeder,
miniature cows in their stanchions sipping liquid sugar,
we are fifty years together. There are still trees.
Berry, a farmer who comes from farmers, and Harrison, his whole life shaped by camping, fishing, and hunting, both have knowledge and love of nature that only comes from years outdoors. Living in the country, close to the earth, they have first-hand experience with hard physical labor and its satisfactions. Each continues in a long marriage to his first, original, and only wife. Nature, labor, and marriage, then, provide solid ground, fertile soil from which to bring forth poems.
*From Chaucer’s “The Flower and the Leaf”