Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Didactic Poetry

I recently picked up Wendell Berry's new book of poetry Given. Within it is a poem called "Some Further Words". It is, more so than any poem I have read outside of the Biblical poetry, what one might call "didactic".
That is, Berry takes one thumb and loops it through his suspender strap, and the other farm-calloused hand he extends and firmly places on your shoulder. He tells you something. He believes something about the world - about the relationship between human-beings, trees, beasts and the clouds over his head - and he explains this to you.
In an age where belief in any kind of universal knowledge is mocked, didactic poetry is little more than a joke. I am sure that many see Berry as a quaint old farmer prattling on harmlessly.
Poe wasn't the first to attack didactic poetry, I'm sure, but he surely did so in a vivid manner. "Heresy" he called it, in his essay The Poetic Principle. His scathing condescension for anyone foolish enough to give credibility to didactic poetry hinges upon the belief that truth, and its explication, has no home within the pathos-charged field of poetry.
That is where he differs from the snickering intellectuals of today's literary world. They know something he did not; that no such thing as truth exists. We are, suffice to say, chemical, and poetry is little more than chemical.
"Literary despair" is what Carver Yu famously called it, and the intellectuals of today have taken this for granted. They have become quite used to the huge aching vacuum in poetry where Truth used to have residence. Poetry has become either trite mystical descriptions and half-prophecies unbelieved in or, as Berry puts it, "one long note of woe."

Berry is interested in life. He is interested in humanity. His interest is seen in his lifestyle, and not in his words. His words spring out of his lifestyle. His life and words teach each other.

He is a good man, full of wisdom. I am honored that he would take me by the shoulder look me in the eye and say (as quoted in an interview with Mr. Berry in 1999):

"Well, be a little steady now. No, you can't quit, you're not finished yet."

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