Saturday, January 17, 2009


In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one's own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

There are two aspects to these forms. The first is the way of making or acting or doing, which is to some extent technical. That is to say that definitions—settings of limits—are involved. The names poetry and marriage are given only to certain things, not to anything or to everything. Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music; if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry. Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditional formed sort, for instance, does not propose that its difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one's quarrel with one's wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed—imposed before the beginning.
Wendell Berry, "Poetry and Marriage" in Standing by Words. North Point, 1983. 201.


brtom said...

Berry's is a thought that when read in a certain way seems profoundly—even narrowly— conservative and reactionary, but when considered from another angle seems (at least) open (not utterly closed) to a freer construction ... which one guesses Berry himself would disagre with. So, is this "freer construction" just wrong reading? A bending of the text to make a squirrel of a rabbit?

ms said...

but is not man made to challenge those forms which were, after all, marked out by fellow men years ago? Is not the ability to change and be changed an integral part of the form? Few if any write sonnets anymore but a sonnet is no less or more a poetry. If I was a poet and I could write and I said it was a poem how do you know it isn't
Is "The Alphabet" any less "poetry" for failure to adhere to older format or syntax?I've read there is no haiku not written in Japanese as the sounds of the language are an integral part of the haiku but we are taught it is haiku if we keep to form by counting syllables.
I could say many things of marriage along the same lines but prefer to not go there - I don't really know what I think about mariage, what it is or should be.
I respectfully disagree that a poem must be just such, nothing different, more or less, based on nothing more than tradition. Seems to me a poem can be about everything, depending on both the author and the reader and that this adaptability - this "shape shifting" - is part of what makes it a poem rather than not, or something else.
Then again I am no poet nor do I know how to write whereas Berry, Ginsberg, Silliman and countless others all do it very well (as do you Tom) so perhaps I'm missing something - maybe on some purposeful level I don't get it in hope that what is poetry will change, becoming low enough a form that even I one day can say I write or I poem without feeling a sham.

ms said...

no more here -- here would be stale and moldy like old cigarettes and burped gasesous beer...but I am lazy while still thinking about these ideas so elsewhere to show another side ... at least 2 views and this is what keeps the process flowing