Berry, one of the country’s most gifted writers, never fails to deliver a memorable quote. Yes, he’s a prolific poet, farmer, staunch conservationist and one of Kentucky’s amiable ambassadors, but he’s also a thoughtful critic of our times and the natural world we live in.
Would that Berry, 77, was one of those nightly pundits, raising the national dialogue by saying, as he has, “Whether we or our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
Instead we’ll have to make do with one night in Washington for the 2012 Jefferson Lecture. He follows the provocative speeches of past honorees, including Lionel Trilling, Arthur Miller and Tom Wolfe.
Berry published his first book of poetry in 1964, and since then has built a collection of more than 40 works that have examined the way we live with nature. Earlier this year, Berry received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama.
Sample Berry’s poem “A Letter” from his book “Leavings” below:
I dreamed that you and I were sent to Hell.
The place we went to was not fiery
or cold, was not Dante’s Hell or Milton’s,
but was, even so, as true a Hell as any.
It was a place unalterably public
in which crowds of people were rushing
in weary frenzy this way and that,
as when classes change in a university
or at quitting time in a city street,
except that this place was wider far
than we could see, and the crowd as large
as the place. In that crowd every one
was alone. Every one was hurrying.
Nobody was sitting down. Nobody
was standing around. All were rushing
so uniformly frantic, that to average them
would have stood them still. It was a place
deeply disturbed. We thought, you and I,
that we might get across and come out
on the other side, if we stayed together,
only if we stayed together. The other side
would be a clear day in a place we would know.
We joined hands and hurried along,
snatching each other through small openings
in the throng. But the place was full
of dire distractions, dire satisfactions.
We were torn apart, and I found you
breakfasting upon a huge fried egg.
I snatched you away: “Ed! Come on!”
And then, still susceptible, I met
a lady whose luster no hell could dim.
She took all my thought. But then,
in the midst of my delight, my fear
returned: “Oh! Damn it all! Where’s Ed?”
I fled, searching, and found you again.
We went on together. How this ended
I do not know. I woke before it could end.
But, old friend, I want to tell you
how fine it was, what a durable
nucleus of joy it gave my fright
to force that horrid way with you, how
heavenly, let us say, in spite of Hell.
Do you want to know why
you were distracted by an egg, and I
by a beautiful lady? That’s Hell.