Form: How a Marriage is Like a Poem (Wendell Berry)

In his 1982 essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” Wendell Berry used poetry and marriage as images of each other. It was hard to tell whether the essay was mainly about poetry or mainly about marriage, because the two were mutually illuminating. Berry moved his analogical eye back and forth between these two things in order to evoke from them a deeper reality that is always very hard to speak about: form. Poetry and marriage, said Berry, are both caught up in the paradox of form, the paradox in which strict limits are imposed, and somehow simultaneously a great possibility is established. Entering into a form, Berry pointed out, jealously defines a way and –in the same movement– generously invites a great good. It closes as it opens.

Berry worked the comparison for 14 brilliant pages, by turns bringing clarity and evoking mystery (some of my favorite sentences in this essay are the ones I don’t fully grasp). He admitted that “there is some danger of becoming cute or precious in carrying this analogy out to such length, and yet I am working on the assumption that the analogy is valid.” He tried to solve a few vexed issues with the analogy, such as how to think rightly about those less formal poetic genres (clue: free verse is like courtship). But if the thought project was to work at all, he insisted,

the analogy… is most readily apparent if we think of marriage and poetic forms as set forms –that is, forms that in a sense precede the content, that are in a sense prescriptive. These set forms are indispensible, I believe, because they accommodate and serve that part of our life which is cyclic, drawing minds and lives back repeatedly through the same patterns, as each year moves through the same four seasons in the same order.

There was a season back in the 1980s when Wendell Berry was writing a lot about the nature of poetry. Most of the essays collected in the volume Standing by Words (including this essay on “Poetry and Marriage”) were on that topic. Marriage, on the other hand, is one of about half a dozen constant themes in Berry’s writing; almost no Berry book, fiction or non-fiction, prose or verse, can avoid the topic for long. He relates marriage to the land, to the cycling of the seasons, to civic membership, to the intergenerational bond of human community, to the nature of humanity, to life under God.

One of the things Berry was most vocally opposed to was divorce, or more generally, to the cultural declension that made divorce seem like the ever-present option, an option that was equal to, though opposite from, marriage. In this essay, Berry made it clear that divorce had no such standing. Marriage is a form entered into, which has its own built-in conclusion and fulfilment: death. A marriage is a formal vow, Berry argued, and as such it can be seen to stand opposite not-vowing.

Until the wedding vows are said, the argument that one might find a better spouse has standing because there is no argument or evidence that can be produced against it; statistical probability would seem to support it: given the great number of theoretically possible choices, one might make a better choice. The vows answer that argument simply by cloture: the marriage now exists beyond all possibility of objection.

Beyond all possibility? Yes, that was Berry’s relentless point. The power to break the vow is not parallel to the power to make it. “Undoubtedly,” he admitted, thinking of Jephthah and Agamemnon, “some vows ought to be broken. Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right.” But in all cases, he argued, “the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.”

Berry invoked two Muses who are at work in both poetry and marriage alike:

the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form…. It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live the bitterness of disappointment.

Berry’s constant theme throughout was constancy: vowing, staying, keeping form, enforcing freedom, remaining open to new possibility within the given, and to unexpected gifts.

The most forceful passages in Berry’s essay, if they are not the passages rejecting divorce, are the ones confessing the difficulty of staying within the form of poetry or marriage. “Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially.” Because he knew that the blessings flowed precisely from the restriction (remember the paradox of form, which simultaneously closes and opens, is jealous to be generous), he leaned into the limitations. “These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration– the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith.” And he added, I think changing the register of his speaking: “They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect.”

(An aside: I am so grateful that I know no details of Wendell Berry’s lifelong marriage to his wife Tanya. If I knew any, could I resist the temptation to hear affectionate complaints about Mrs. Berry in every line of this essay? Nietzsche was right when he warned that “with such pot-peeking they reduce the author’s whole effort to nothing; so that they deservedly gain, not a philosophic outlook or instruction, but -at best, or at worst,- nothing more than the satisfaction of vulgar curiosity.”)

“It may be,” wrote Berry near the end of the essay,

that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Artists love limits. As the great formophile William Wordsworth said, they “scorn not the sonnet” with its ancient, fixed rules, just as “nuns fret not” at the convent door. Likewise, when Auguste Rodin bloviated that “no truly great man has ever confined his love to only one woman,” lovers know that Rodin should have talked less and sculpted more, for he sculpted like a demigod but spake as a fool.

It is the keeping of the form, Berry wrote, that gives us our instruction. “We had been prepared to learn what we had the poor power to expect. But fidelity to the form has driven us beyond expectation. The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought.”

I have written this appreciation of Berry’s 1982 essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms” in the past tense because it is more than 30 years old. I could have written it in the present tense because Wendell Berry is very much alive and still writing, and some of his recent work is some of his best (don’t miss his short novel Andy Catlett from 2007, which is among my favorites). I could also have written it in the present tense because that’s how you write about old books: author says this, author argues that.

But recently Berry went out of his way to make a public statement about marriage and homosexuality, or to “expound on gay marriage.” I know Berry was speaking aloud and not crafting a careful or considered essay, and I can also tell that his main job that day was to declare whose religion-political program he abominates most, which he did with some gusto, roundly condemning and shaming his opponents. And I always think of Wendell Berry as getting a sort of free pass on actual political issues, since his overall position is wonderfully and unmappably cattywompus from available electoral options (though I expect party leaders can count on him to vote Democrat when push comes to shove).

But I write in the past tense because Berry’s recent remarks make a definitional move that this older essay didn’t foresee, and doesn’t even seem to permit. They put a question mark after many of his earlier statements. He has retroactively obfuscated his point about limits and definitions. Here’s what I mean:

In his recent remarks, Berry mocks the idea that “homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals.” He goes on to make the excellent point, which is exactly in line with his decades-long argument, that infidelity, divorce, and promiscuity without any regard for marriage are the real problem. Marriage as an institution is breaking down around us because it’s being done so badly. “Heterosexual marriage does not need defending… It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.” He has a good point, perhaps even the main point, and we’ll hardly catch Wendell Berry cheerleading for the culture of sexual self-expression and self-fulfillment.

But he does apparently move to include homosexual relationships in the category of marriage (I assume he is thinking of that status of permanent, lifelong commitments between homosexual partners). That is hard to square with the language and the direction of his “Use of Old Forms” essay. On the second page of that essay, just to get things going, he offered this brief account of marriage:

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 traditionally 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.

And, as rehearsed above, he spends several thousand words exploring the way our loves fit into that ancient form that we are not free to alter. Thirty years later the “man and woman” part needs to be extended and expanded; it looked like an essential limitation but apparently was not. It does not belong to the definition proper, apparently, so it is not subject to the restriction that it not “be altered to suit… circumstance.”

It is not a slippery slope argument, but a request for definition, to ask what other terms in Berry’s notion of marriage are equally non-essential. Obviously the vow must be essential, and the life-long character of it (“until death”). But what else is essential? What are the boundaries, the limits, that he wrote so eloquently about remaining within? Apparently what is essential is the vow alone. I had assumed much more. I suspect Wendell Berry did as well, and perhaps, could the discussion be disentangled a bit from its political setting, still does. Not that I care what Wendell Berry’s positions are. But there is a lot to learn from his patient investigations into the nature of things, not least from his comparison of poetry and marriage.

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