How to Be a Poet

by Wendell Berry


Original Language English

(To remind myself)

i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill -- more of each
than you have -- inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

-- from Given: Poems, by Wendell Berry

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Surprising, but I only discovered this poem by Wendell Berry a few months ago. Oh, I like it, don't you?

One doesn't have to be a poet to carried away by it. In fact, it's not really about writing poetry at all, is it? It's really about how to perceive and how to inhabit each moment of each day. That is when the best poetry is born.

The first verse invites is to settle down. Reading those first few lines, I feel my own slightly aging bones settling awkwardly into a state of rest and stillness. And there is the slow interior work of reading, cultivating inspiration, the private work on the blank page. I love that he lists "growing older" as one of the necessary tasks of the poet. And patience--

for patience joins time
to eternity.


The second verse seems to be more about our relationship to place, both exterior and interior space. In recent years I haven't done so well with avoiding electric wire and screens, but there was a time some years ago when I did just that, literally. It does shift one's sense of reality and connection to the world. The transition feels stressful at first, and then, slowly, the world around us starts to take depth and life, becoming a slow-speaking friend in constant, quiet communication.

What are the ways we have been taught to sever that connection?

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


And he concludes with that wonderful meditation on silence. We think a poem is a collection of words, but the best poetry simply gives shape to silence.

Accept what comes from silence...

make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.


Have a beautiful weekend, remembering to breathe the unconditional breath!



Recommended Books: Wendell Berry

The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982 Given: Poems Selected Poems of Wendell Berry A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 The Mad Farmer Poems
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How to Be a Poet