Grounded Poetry with Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is “an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer,” to name some of his credentials.  I’ve been infatuated with his poetry for a long time.

Feet on the earth, grounded, present, receptive are a few of the words that I would use to describe Wendell Berry.  I see him as a practical visionary.  His poetry reflects his values.  I’ve included a couple of very short clips of Wendell Berry reading.  If you want more (and I hope that you do), there are plenty of youtube videos of him…one is a lengthy interview with Bill Moyers.

How to be a poet by Wendell Berry


and this one…


As I’ve said before, there is something about a poet’s voice reading his or her own words.  With Berry’s poetry, though these clips are short, I enter the trance-like state that his poetry evokes (especially when I listen to these poems a few times).

Wendell Berry is one of those people who lives his values.  He has a message and he is compelled to offer his discoveries to the world.  And he does.


We’ve discussed writing about where your passion lies.  Are you doing it?  For that is where you are going to find the most energy.  Your words become more than words…they become winged messengers.  Have you noticed this for yourself?  Even when you’re speaking to someone about your subject–the one for which you have deep care and concern–something in your tone of voice heightens and strives to engage your listener.

For your journal, remembering what you are passionate about and writing it down, again, refreshes your perspective about your subject.  Have you had any new insights lately about where you’d like to go in writing about your passion?  Or any thoughts on how you’d like to creatively bring this to the attention of others?

Getting a Glimpse and Giving a Glimpse

I have not personally witnessed the blues players in a bar in Harlem circa 1958.  I won’t have this direct experience.

That is why I’m grateful to the late poet, writer and social activist, Langston Hughes, who documents some of this in his jazz poetry.

His words, as I let them wash over me, take me to another time, place, era and give me a vicarious experience.  How fortunate we are to have a youtube clip of Hughes reciting his poem, The Weary Blues, to musical accompaniment.


Listening to and watching Langston Hughes recite his poem more than once, I am transported!

I recall the one time that I read a poem to musical accompaniment–an upright double bass player and a drummer.  We didn’t rehearse together ahead of time.  Along with other poets, I was invited to read a poem or two on a little stage in a long hall.  Reading publicly was relatively new to me.  Feeling both excitement and fear, I tentatively walked to the elevated stage and stood beside the bass player.  The grounding tones of the bass, the heartbeat of the drum and my words created a melange of sounds.  Once finished, flushed with the energies of the moment, I leapt from the stage, heart pounding and listened as other brave poets read their words to music.

There is something about reading your poetry to music.  Have you tried it?  Do you have a friend who plays a musical instrument?  Do you play an instrument yourself?  Dear poet, if you can, do find a way to give yourself this experience.  Musical accompaniment creates a whole other dimension to poetic expression. Afterall, poetry is rhythmic.

Langston Hughes’ poem captured a segment of society and a particular era.  What is something distinct to your life that you’d like to write about? to preserve for posterity? to offer as a glimpse into your experience for a future generation? Through prose, poetry…or another art form. Write it, then recite it to someone…perhaps with music.

NOTE:  If you are interested in listening to a lecture by Langston Hughes talking about his life and hear him reading some of his poetry, you can google this recording.  I found it to be fascinating.

Langston Hughes Speaking at UCLA, 2/16/1967

Personally, I Ponder Personification

I mean, does a tree really desire to have human qualities attributed to it?  Then, does a tree even have desire?  Can’t a tree stand alone, sovereign, without humans endowing it with our virtues, vices, qualities or behaviors?

Maybe not!  Maybe writers and poets use personification as a means to comprehend what is termed “other”.  By comparing something to ourselves, perhaps we think we have an understanding of what it is or isn’t.

According to poet and writer, Mary Oliver, “Personification is the term used when one gives a physical characteristic or innate quality of animation to something that is inanimate…”  She gives an example from poet, James Wright–

“I bowed my head, and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.”

A second definition for personification is from poet and writer, Frances Mayes:  “An emotion or something inhuman, such as a mountain or love or a tree, is given human qualities.”

A few more examples:

  • from Stephen Spender, “…whispers of wind in the listening sky…”
  • from William Sharp, “…the sleeping sea…” OR “…And in the soft ear of Spring, light voices sing.”
  • from creative soul and nature sprite, Opal Whiteley, “I danced on a log…as the wind does play the harps in the forest.”

WRITING PROMPT:  Choose something in nature with which you feel a connection.  Animate it with human qualities. Use poetry or prose, whatever makes you feel more at ease.  Does this type of comparison come easy to you?

cropped-castlelake11.jpg(photo of Castle Lake by Christine O’Brien)

“The sky smiled at its reflection in the lake.”

Poetry–Purveyor of Universal Themes–is it?

Initially, I wrote poetry for myself.  It was often cathartic.  Ultimately, I believe, poetry is meant to be for a larger audience.  Poetry is intimate and reflects an individual’s perceptions, experiences and feelings. However, inherent within poetry is that oft-stated truth that “the personal is political.” Poetry marks the human journey. While it relates the poet’s personal journey, poetry often reflects the climate sustained by a larger cultural belief or practice.

As a woman writing about not feeling safe, for example…I look across the landscapes of time and place on the planet and I witness how women have not felt safe for generations over many different cultures.  (I mean within their very homes and communities.) As a poet, I capture my unique experience of feeling unsafe and like a hall of mirrors, the image is reflected ad infinitum.

Therefore, poetry joins us to one another.  The poet is, in this way, a herald of the times.


Writing Prompt:
In your journal, write your own reflections on how the personal is political for you.  In what way is your poetry (or writing or art) a herald of the times?  Does your writing, in some way, reflect a larger, universal theme?  Do you believe that your poetry or writing is “meant to be for a larger audience?”