The Place of Stones, and Wendell Berry’s Poetry – Part Three: “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” and “How to Be a Poet”

In the the first Post in this series, I showed the following photos of  eight stones and eight places and asked, What place does each stone come from? Can you put them together? In Part One, I revealed the places of origin of the first four stones. In Part Two, I identified the places to which  Stones #5 and #6 belonged. This Post locates Stones  #7 and #8. 

These Posts also dip into the views and poetry of Wendell Berry from Kentucky, whose critical insights into the social and environmental problems of modern large-scale agriculture played a role in my doctoral thesisCommentators appreciate Berry’s wisdom but also his “contrariness”. This trait is displayed in the poem I used to open Chapter Six of my thesis, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (discussed in Part Two of this Series). There, Berry states, for example, Love the Lord. Love the world (when love of God and love of the world are often seen to be mutually exclusive opposites), and Ask the questions that have no answers. He even wrote a poem called “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”:

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

Stone #7, probably jasper, was collected from Place C, Gemstone Beach, Te Waewae Bay, Southland (see the TumbleStone Post “March 2019 Stone Collecting Trip to Southern New Zealand – Gemstone Beach, from the Car Park to the Waimeamea River Mouth“).

And in his three-part poem below, Berry is again typically contrary, just like the waves on Gemstone Beach, pushing the stones onto the shore but also pulling them back, sucking them out to sea and out of the reach of the stone collector. Berry writes this time as a poet considering his readers – Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment.

“How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry
(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.

In my thesis, as a contrary academic, I pointed out some limitations with Berry’s views on agriculture and his proposed solutions to agricultural crises (pages 42-43). His positive view of the family farm and the traditional roles associated with it overlooked a number of its failings. Not all family farms are stewardly. And traditional gender roles can often be stultifying and are, in fact, unnecessary. 

Stone #8, fossil coral, was collected from Place G, Beaumaris Beach, Isle of Angelsey, Wales (see gonorthwales.co.uk). See the end of this Post for more information on Beaumaris Beach.

Despite my critical comments, Berry’s voice remains a largely prophetic one, eloquent and wise, much needed in today’s world, speaking deeply to people’s relationship to both their natural  and cultural environments.

Here is a rare television interview with Wendell Berry, 40 minutes long, during which he reads some of his poetry.

*******

NOTE ON BEAUMARIS BEACH (Place G)

Beaumaris Beach, Isle of Anglesey, northwest Wales, has appeared only very briefly in TumbleStone before so here is some more information on it. Here is its location on Google Maps. Here is the Wikipedia article on its current character and its history. Petra and I visited Beaumaris in June 2018 while we were based on Anglesey for a few weeks. We went to visit the castle and have a walk around the historical part of the town. We also discovered the tiny beach beside the pier on the edge of the Strait of Menai (which cuts Anglesey off from the Welsh mainland) where I found Stone #8.

That beach is to the right of this virtual video walk down the pier: 

And this is a person’s personal yet informative video tour of Beaumaris Castle:

See here for a great little video of adventures in Beaumaris from a child’s point of view.

Author: tumblestoneblog

Retired Academic, male, living in the New Zealand countryside with his wife, two cats (Ollie and Fluffy), two horses (Dancer and Penny) and a shed half-full of stones. Email john.tumblestone@gmail.com.

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