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.

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