Poetry Review: “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

Throwback Thursday: Previously published here on April 12, 2012. 

Wendell Berry is a writer and an activist. He has written novels, short-stories, essays and books of non-fiction on subjects as varied as farming, economics, politics, and Christianity. Yet in the end, he is a lyric poet.

I have certainly not read all of his prose work, but enough to suggest that it is this lyrical/poetical nature of his that informs his thinking about and interests in subjects like peace and justice, Christian spirituality, and living close to the land.

Berry is ultimately a poet-farmer, a poet-economist, a poet-activist, a poet-philosopher, and a poet-theologian. In short, he is the kind of writer and thinker the world has too few of.

On a beautiful Easter Saturday, a Wendell Berry poem seems like just the thing.



How to Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

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.   
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.   
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.
     Source: Poetry (January 2001).


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

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.

I like a number of lines in this poem. Yet in the end the poem builds to this long, final line. When I first read this poem I found the last stanza clumsy. Yet I read it again out-loud and came to like it very much. Over time I have come to love it. Silence as holy. Poetry as prayer. The poet as mystic.

Book Review: “The Last Kind Words Saloon” by Larry McMurtry

Last Kind Words Saloon

Book: The Last Kind Words Saloon, by Larry McMurtry

Style: Western-Mythish

Plot: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other historical western characters like Buffalo Bill Cody and Charles Goodnight interact with fictional characters in a mythic West.

Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:

    A hat came skipping down the main street of Long Grass, propelled only by the wind, which was sharp for March. The had was brown felt and had a narrow brim.
“I believe that’s Doc Featherston’s hat,” Wyatt said. “He may have lost track of it while setting a limb.”
“Or, he might be over at the Orchid fornicating and let it blow out the window,” Doc Holliday suggested.
“Doubt it… only rich dentists such as yourself can afford the Orchid these days,” Wyatt said.
Doc drew his pistol and aimed at the hat but didn’t shoot.
“Why would a grown many want to be a dentist anyway?” Wyatt inquired.
“Well, for one thing, the cost of equipment is low,” Doc told him. “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.”
At the mention of a chisel Wyatt turned pale–he had always been squeamish.
“I am sorry I brought it up,” he said. “Are we going to sit here and let the good doctor’s hat blow clean away?”
A crow flew over. Dock shot at it twice, but missed.
Wyatt walked out in the street and picked up the hat.


Larry McMurtry is pound-for-pound the best writer to ever try his hand at the Western. In Lonesome Dove, he wrote a great American novel. In his other Westerns he has consistently written novels that are both literary and enjoyable, something few contemporary novelist ever manage to achieve.

His themes of loss and natural beauty are as haunting and beautiful as the changing western landscapes that he writes about. His characters, embodied in Gus & Call in Lonesome Dove, are at once both realistic and transcendent

The first thing that must be said though about The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is not Lonesome Dove, or any of his other Westerns. In his prologue, McMurtry calls it a “ballad in prose.”

Historical and fictional characters move about a changing stage like characters in Waiting for Godot. The famous gun battle at the OK-Corral amounts to less than a few paragraphs and happens “off stage.” In the end, the best description for what The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is an existential play about loss and change.

As I have said here before, I do not finish a lot novels, even novels I love or find compelling and beautifully written. I generally get about two-thirds of the way through and figure I have the gist of the book and a good feeling for what the writer is trying to do. In the plotless world of contemporary novels, this has never seemed like a failing. While I often feel the need to finish a mystery novel, I usually feel like I can easily abandon most any other novel anyplace before the last page.

And yet somehow I managed to finish The Last Kind Words Saloon. What is more, I have been thinking about it quite often in the days since I finished it. In the end, I suppose that those are the two most important things this reviewer can say about this or any novel.


Book Review: Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott

Throwback Thursday: This is the fourth book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found atPoets on Poetry.” This review was first posted here August 24, 2011.

Robert Frost is the most American of all American poets. He is American in subject, sound, and sensibility. It is his great strength and his greatest weakness. While Whitman’s propheticness transcended his American-ness, Frost can make no such claim to a transcendent universality. In the end he remains Poet Americanus.

That is what makes this volume of essays by three great, non-American poets, so interesting. For American poets, Frost resides in our very bones, like the sounds of  rivers, and highways, and wind in trees, and the voices of American birds and American words spoken in coffee shops and local bars and across fences at harvest time.

Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott are three of the finest contemporary world poets. The essays that form Homage to Robert Frost have their root in a seminar that was done on Frost at College International de Philosophie in Paris. In Paris – the most self-consciously unAmerican of all cities – three non-American poets discussed Frost and his poetry. The result is wonderful.

While American readers and poets always approach Frost from the inside… Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott, by necessity, come to Frost from without. This enables them to hear him in a way an American reader cannot. This, ultimately, is the greatest value of Homage to Robert Frost.

According to my usual note on the inside front cover of the book, I first read Homage to Robert Frost in late fall of 1996. In the fall of 1996, we were no longer living in our little house in St. Paul but would have just moved into suburban Bloomington. I would still have been freelancing as a writer and editor of training materials and bible studies. During the days I would have been doing the at-home dad thing, and on some evenings I would have been working at a telemarketing job. I would have been reading Homage to Robert Frost during toddler nap times and while sitting in a cube waiting for inbound-sales calls to come in. As I have said elsewhere, the words of Brodsky, Heany and Walcott – and the the lines of Robert Frost – would have been helping me to keep my sanity, as poetry has always done for me.

Opening now the book, I read some lines I underlined and highlighted 15 years ago.

“When a European conceives of confronting nature, he walks out of his cottage or a little inn, filled with either friends or family, and goes for an evening stroll. If he encounters a tree, it’s a tree made familiar by history, to which its’ been a witness. This or that king sat underneath it, lay down this or that law – something of that sort. A tree stands there rustling, as it were, with allusions. Pleased and somewhat pensive, our man, refreshed bu unchanged by that encounter, returns to his in or cottage, finds his friends and family absolutely intact, and proceeds to have a good, merry time. Wheras when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up…. Our man returns to his cabin in a state of bewilderment, to say the least, if not in actual shock.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason” paraphrasing Auden’s essay on Frost)

“With few exceptions, American poetry is essentially Virgilian, which is to say contemplative.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason”)

“Frost believed… that individual venture and vision arose as a creative defense against emptiness, and that it was therefore possible that a relapse into emptiness would be the ultimate destiny of consciousness.” (cf. Heaney’s essay “Above the Brim”)

“Why is the favorite figure of American patriotism not paternal but avuncular? Because uncles are wiser than fathers.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“Frost is an autocratic poet rather than a democratic poet.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“… Yeats told Pound that A Boy’s Will was “the best poetry written in America for a long time.’ The judgement seems right.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“For interior recitation, usually of complete poems, not only of lines or stanzas, Frost and Yeats, for their rhythms and design, are the most memorable poets of the century.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“The poem does not obey linear time; it is, by its beligerance or its surrender, the enemy of time; and it is, when it is true, time’s conqueror, not time’s servant.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)


As so often happens, Frost’s stature in American literature has diminished over time. It is more a “taking for granted” I think than a re-assessment. It is easy to take Frost for granted in the same way that it is easy to take for granted Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. Sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us of what is most essential and best about America. Homage to Robert Frost accomplishes this beautifully,

Measuring Time in Birds

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The Vernal Equinox has been rung. Juncos have returned to our feeders here in the North Country.

Yesterday biking past a nearby pond I thought I heard the call of a Red-Winged Blackbird. But I spotted nothing. On the open water, I saw Mallard Ducks and Canadian Geese. So it may have been wishful thinking.

At the house we lived in before this one, just a few blocks south of here, there were two huge oak trees in our backyard. Each spring and fall a huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds would gather in them. The noise they made was so great that you could hear them through closed windows and doors. When I would open the sliding door to the deck so we could step out to see them, the sound washed over us and like a great wave of change.

Sometimes I feel like a could measure the best times in my life by birds.

The cacophonous Crows that filled the trees at Drumcliffe Churchyard. The Juncos Morgan and I would watch– when she was little– at Richardson Nature Center. Bobolinks cussing us out in a Southwestern Minnesota prairie. Magpies sitting on fence posts in Montana.  Great-Tailed Grackles watching Sue and I eat shrimp tacos in Padre Island, Texas.

For the most part I hesitate to call myself a bird-watcher. I am too poor at identifying them.

If I were to call myself anything, I would call myself one who has been blessed.

Submitting Poems and Other Random Thoughts

The warmer than normal winter has turned into a cooler that normal early spring. But I have still gotten to bike a few times. In February I biked five times. In March so far… four.

I continue sending poems out to magazines, e-zines, and journals for publication. My goal is to make at least one submission a week. I have been averaging two.

This week I also submitted a chapbook manuscript of 25-ish pages to a contest. The first time I have done that. I will keep you posted here when (and if) something is accepted.

My week of Tuning Out has turned into two and a half. In the past couple of days, I have dipped in every now and then, but never for long. It has done wonders for my mood to ignore Trump and his ignorant army. It has let me think about other things. I would recommend it as a strategy to all who are unnerved or depressed by Trump’s relentless assault on Truth.

Yesterday Sue and I went to a wonderful production of Macbeth. It is a reminder that corruption is endemic with those who seek political power. It is also a reminder that the wages of such civic sin is, inevitably, death.

I continue working my way through Ulysses and The Road to Assisi. I have a couple of Westerns in the works that I will be reviewing here at some point.

Another winter is coming to an end, and I am still reading and writing.

“My 1991 Schwinn” (sketch by m.a.h. hinton)

Photo Friday

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here are three (get it, a Trinitarian reference) photos for the occasion.

"The Base of Croagh Patrick" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“The Base of Croagh Patrick” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

"Westport T-Shirt" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Westport T-Shirt” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Have a Pint” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

Throwback Thursday

Auden-collectedOn Re-Reading Auden
Originally posted here on 

For a couple of summers in my early 20s, I worked for the United States Forest Service. In the summer of 1983, I worked on a trail crew in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana. At night, long after my fellow crew members were asleep, I would lie in my sleeping bag reading W.H. Auden’s Selected Poems by flashlight.

I still have the volume. It has browned with time and is as dog-eared as you would expect a volume to be that had been tied to a mule and hauled along the Continental Divide Trail.

Flipping through it now 27 years later (!), I read lines I underlined all those nights ago. Memories of the mountains and my youth mingle with Auden’s words.

Sometimes I will read a line I underlined or boldly starred and wonder, why did I think so much of that line? this other one is clearly the better?

That is the nature of art. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never re-approach a work of art exactly the same. We are different each time we read a poem, stand in front of a painting, listen to a song. We are different because we have been changed by time, experience, and by the work of art itself, and all the other works of art we have encountered and been changed by.

I read Auden differently now because I have read Auden.