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An Occasional Word

Let a Line Love You

I say if a line in a poem wants to love you, let it. Let it reach out and grab ya’, as Steve Miller might say. Let it soak in and let tears from nowhere seep out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t “get” the rest of the poem.

Maybe someday you will. But for now, it doesn’t matter.

For now, just enjoy the fact that one line or image has sought you out in your busy day and carried a moment of feeling to you. It has scraped away the worries and other debris that cloud our minds and showed you the best part of yourself: pure spirit. The you that is moved to tears by a cloud, or sappy TV commercials, or a bird singing on a wire.

The first poem that did that to me was “Sowing” by Wendell Berry. A wise teacher looked at the sixteen-year-old me, quiet and shy and raised in the country, and recommended I read the book Farming: a Handbook, by Wendell Berry. I loved it. In particular, I loved this poem.


In the stilled place that once was a road going down
from the town to the river, and where the lives of marriages grew
a house, cistern and barn, flowers, the tilted stone of borders,
and the deeds of their lives ran to neglect, and honeysuckle
and then the fire overgrew it all, I walk heavy
with seed, spreading on the cleared hill the beginnings
of green, clover and grass to be pasture. Between
history’s death upon the place and the trees that would have come
I claim, and act, and am mingled in the fate of the world.

That last line can still move me to tears.

As a teenager, I was full of hope and worry. I thought I might be able to change the world and I had no idea where to start. This poem was both calming and encouraging in its story of a man shaping a small part of the world. I loved the rural place where I was raised, and Berry loved his. He was a farmer and a poet, and the fact that he could do these two things meant I might be able to as well.

Now that I’m older, this poem still speaks to me. There is room for me, it says, even if I’m operating under the radar of big voices, big money, and general bigness. I’m here, too, living as sincerely and as well as I can.

I’ve kept this poem around my office for years, in jobs I loved and jobs I hated, much in the same way I keep a poster of the Earth around--that is, to remind me of a bigger perspective. No matter what nonsense the day might bring—the human equivalent of chimps throwing fruit at each other—the world keeps spinning. And, thank God, I am still on it.

All of this came to me because of the love in that last line.

When I go back and look at the rest of the poem, there are other riches there as well. When I tried to memorize this poem, I became more aware of the music in it. The rhythm in particular is pleasing and regular, grave and lovely. Rather than get too technical, I’ll just say that the rhythm reinforces the message of the poem: there is comfort in cycles, in patterns.

Read this poem out loud and feel how it rolls in the mouth. Notice where there seems to be a beat, or a syllable that naturally has more weight when you speak it. I count about five beats (places where emphasis naturally falls) per line, except for a couple of seven-beat lines. That kind of regular beat pattern is one way that poets use to decide line breaks.

Wendell Berry was born in 1934, and has been writing for decades about community and place. He farms in Kentucky, teaches, and writes poetry, fiction, and essays. In organic farming circles, Berry is considered one of the best American thinkers on issues of sustainability and community.

I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the line you encountered a line of poetry that you loved, and which seemed to love you, and which you remember. I’d love to hear what they are and why they stick with you.

Works Cited:
Berry, Wendell. Farming: a Handbook. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY. 1970. Print.

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