Jun 11 2021

Wendell Berry – How to Be a Poet

Published by at 8:09 am under Poetry

How to Be a Poet
by Wendell Berry

(To remind myself)

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.

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.

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

/ Image by Louis Vest /

One doesn’t have to be a poet to inspired by this poem. In fact, it’s not really about writing poetry at all, is it? It’s really about how to be present, how to inhabit the world quietly and notice more than ourselves. 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 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. I embraced my Luddite instincts as much as practical. 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 on a new depth and life, becoming a slow-speaking friend in constant, quiet communication.

What are the ways we have been taught to not recognize our ongoing dialog with all around us?

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
More Books >>

Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Wendell Berry

US (1934 – )
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Wendell Berry

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Wendell Berry – How to Be a Poet”

  1. Mystic Meanderingon 11 Jun 2021 at 9:04 am

    I relate to the last stanza, as I often experience this while sitting in The Silence that is within, and start” journaling.” And within that “writing” often the words just spill out onto the page – maybe not in perfection, but I somehow realize that the words are coming *through* The Silence onto the page and want to be written in poem form. And so I do the best to scribe what comes from being with The Silence within… I feel somehow they are an offering… _/\_

  2. Janeton 13 Jun 2021 at 8:44 am

    This was absolutely beautiful! I thank you very much.

  3. Beatrixon 14 Jun 2021 at 8:35 pm

    Sometimes I am afraid of reading modern poetry. It is often so bare it leaves me wandering if wanting to break from traditional writing we are losing the art of the word. This poem is a comfort and joy. It is so beautifully written and so introspective. Its rhythm is so fluid as the light of the moon on dancing waves. Definitely a gifted writer

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