Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Not Play it Cool?

Here's a poem by Wendell Berry that recently appeared in The New Yorker.  It's written in couplets of iambic pentameter, and it's about global warming, I think.  

Can you write a good poem about global warming?  This poem doesn't shy away from being didactic. In fact, you could call it preachy. Usually that makes for a bad poem.  And I am having a hard time saying that this is a good poem, even though I agree with all its sentiments.  A couple of lines in it stick in my craw, for example:

 "Burning the world to live in it is wrong." 

 Why is this bad?  Well, any more, poems don't generally lecture to you and tell you what's wrong.  I guess they used to, though, but that ended sometime in the early twentieth century.

 So let's say this poem is a throw-back to ...Victorian poetry.  Is it good Victorian poetry?  I would say:  pretty good.  If we look at the line above again, there's more to it than first appears:  the image is of burning  a world in order to live in it.   How can you burn something and live in it at the same time.  You can't.  You could burn some of it to live in the rest of it, but that's not what it says:  it says we are burning the whole world in order to live in it.  Our house is burning down around us.  Point taken.

Some of the images  are really good:  "an antique dark-held luster."  That's oil and coal  presumably.  It's old--"antique," implying old-fashioned, even out-moded, but valuable--and it's "dark-held," in some fastnesses deep in the earth.  Maybe the earth tries to hold onto it, but we wrest it away from her.  And it has luster; it shines like gold, like money, which it can be exchanged for a lot of.

But the question remains:  is it ok to write a didactic poem?  In the sixties there were a lot of poem-like songs that were sort of didactic.  We called them "protest songs."  Is this a protest poem? 


A Speech to the Garden Club of America

(With thanks to Wes Jackson and in memory of Sir Albert Howard and Stan Rowe)

by Wendell Berry

Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

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