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Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Wendell Berry

Introduction and Text of "How to Be a Poet"

Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet" consists of three numbered sections, with eleven lines in sections i and ii, and seven lines in section iii. The poet's purpose according to his subtitle is "to remind myself." The poet thus makes it clear that his little poem contains a philosophical and ideological stance; its theme, therefore, will play out as a professing of advice that demonstrates what the poet has determined to work for him as a poet.

How to Be a Poet

(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.

Reading of "How to Be a Poet"

Commentary

This poem featuring the subtitle, "to remind myself," dramatizes for the poet the necessity of mindfulness.

Section i: Upon Which to Depend

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.

The speaker first commands the would-be poet to "Make a place to sit down." And he logically follows that command with "Sit down. Be quiet." He then lists for himself and any reader/listener who is interested that the would-be poet must "depend upon." Poets must read widely to gain "knowledge" and "skill," but the poet must also have a measure of love and "affection" in his/her heart. The budding poet must "depend upon" these things because s/he probably has a paucity of "inspiration" and "patience."

The speaker declares that patience is important because it "joins time / to eternity." This claim about the function of patience is ambiguous, heralding the questions, Is time related to eternity? What does time or eternity have to do with becoming a poet? The speaker does not have to be clear about this matter for he is merely writing this to remind himself what he thinks it means to be, and perhaps remain, a poet.

Each potential poet will have to answer those questions for him/herself on the path to securing skill in poetry writing. The speaker then admonishes the budding poet not to take seriously any complimentary remarks others might make about his/her work. The poet can become self-satisfied and then fail to make greater efforts in creativity, if he is flattered by those "who like your poems."

Section ii: Keeping the Sacred

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.

The speaker's advice then reveals some rather idiosyncratic notions as he disparages air-conditioning and electricity. Is he suggesting that perhaps the Amish are better suited to write poetry than their modern brothers and sisters? He continues his modern convenience bashing by telling the promising poet to avoid "screens."

In addition to television screens, these "screens" would include computer screens, one would suppose. But then he says, "Stay away from anything / that obscures the place it is in." He seems to suggest that even decorative screens, such as room dividers, are to be avoided also.

The speaker then remarks, "There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places." This pregnant claim devastates the notion that some places are more conductive to writing poetry than others. The poet need only be aware of the desecration in order to remove it from the originally sacred place.

Section iii: Respect for Silence

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.

The final section focuses on "silence." While listening to and diving into the silence, the poet must listen for "little words that come / out of the silence." He says those little words are like prayers—not prayers to the Divine but "prayed back to the one who prays."

The speaker then admonishes the future poet to make poems that "[do] not disturb / the silence from which [they] came." The speaker has established that poetry comes from silence, and he advises the novice to respect that establishment.

It would not be too impudent to suggest that following such sage advise would eliminate about 99.9% of the drivel that has passed to poetry in Western culture for centuries. Clearly, many of the modern and postmoderns, especially in America, have not respected the fact that silence is preferable to noise. The noise-makers, however, will have their reward.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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