Walt Whitman, Wendell Barry, and the Workings of an Agrarian Poet

As we begin to look at the national and international poets and writers inspired by Walt Whitman, it has become even more clear to me the vast influence cast by Walt Whitman upon 19th and 20th century literature.  Since I started taking this class I have found bits and pieces of Whitman throughout my readings.  Whether these writers are actually inspired by Whitman, of if Professor Vander Zee has just made me so paranoid about looking for Whitman references that I see them in my sleep, I may never know; however, while I was reading one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, I could not help but be overcome by the Whitmanian style of his poems. (Not to mention the similarity in dress as seen in the pictures above)

In a sense, I feel as if Berry, a contemporary Agrarian poet who still lives on his farm in Kentucky, embodies Whitman’s cry for the purpose of the American Poet.  In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman states:

American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races.  Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people…His spirit responds to the country’s spirit…he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes ( 6-7).

By calling Berry an Agrarian poet I mean that his poetry calls individuals to return to the more traditionally rural and and local cultures that America was founded upon.  Berry “encloses old and new” by critiquing the industrialization and urbanization of America and revealing the beauty that still remains in nature and rural America.  Like Whitman, Berry’s writing reflects his actions.  He is not a modernist poet writing about the intricacies of nature from his one bedroom loft overlooking Brooklyn, rather Berry is a working farmer whose intimately close relationship with nature can be seen in his writings.

Also like Whitman, one of Berry’s main focuses in his poems is community and even communion: the community and communion between individuals, families, and especially humans and nature.  Berry writes in his poem “Healing:”

The grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common.
In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world (9).

These lines echo Whitman’s Song of Myself” as he writes, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (188).  Berry’s urgent writings about the communion of people can be seen in response to the individualistic mindset of man in the modern world.  His writing is very much a response “to the country’s spirit,” as he urges America to not get ahead of itself in the age of technology and to remember the rural roots from which it came.

Berry portrayal of man’s relationship with the natural world also reminds me of Whitman.  Take for example his poem “The Meadow.”

In the town’s graveyard the oldest plot now frees itself
of sorrow, the myrtle of the graves grown wild.  The last
who knew the faces who had these names are dead.
and now the names fade, dumb on the stones, wild
as shadows in the grass, clear to the rabbit and the wren.
Ungrieved, the town’s ancestry fits the earth.  The become
a meadow, their alien marble grown native as maple (31).

Not only do certain images in the poem, such as the “grass,” “the rabbit and wren,” “the myrtle” and “maple,” remind me of Whitmanesque images, but the way in which “the alien marble” is reclaimed by nature reminds me of Whitman as well.  One could argue that these images are commonly used in poetry, but Berry treats these images similarly to Whitman.  Like in Leaves of Grass when Whitman cannot explain to the small child what grass is, Berry views nature as something that cannot be explained, just felt and experienced.  Berry “incarnates” the “natural life” of America by creating poems that celebrate the grace and freedom found in nature.  This graveyard, that was once a place of sorrow, is healed by nature and once again becomes a place of beauty.  In “The Peace of Wild Things” Berry writes, “And I feel above me the day blind stars / waiting with their light.  For a time / I rest in the grace of the world and am free” (30).  Both of these poets try to beautify culture as well as teach a new type of natural culture to America.  In “Damage” Berry writes, “But a man with a machine and inadequate culture is a pestilence.  He shakes more than he can hold.”  The poet is meant to create culture and give culture to individuals, and to create life and give life to people through words.  Berry fights against American globalization and fights for the small American businessman and farmer.  He embodies the attitude of a Whitman poet.

“The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots” (Whitman 17).

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