I went to hear Wendell Berry deliver the annual National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center this past April. It was one of the most worthwhile lectures I’ve ever attended. If I find a way to post the text (other than typing it up in its entirety), I will do so, but for now I’d like to share the poem that was read to introduce Berry’s talk. Lamentably, he didn’t read the poem — the current U.S. poet laureate did. Her performance was rather underwhelming, to be perfectly frank, but the virtues of the poem were impossible to obscure with a mere mediocre reading.
UPDATE: here’s a link to the text of Berry’s address.
As with much of Berry’s recent work, this poem has no title. It’s just VI — poem the sixth in his collection Leavings.
O saints, if I am even eligible for this prayer,
though less than worthy of this dear desire,
and if your prayers have influence in Heaven,
let my place there be lower than your own.
I know how you longed, here where you lived
as exiles, for the presence of the essential
Being and Maker and Knower of all things.
But because of my unruliness, or some erring
virtue in me never rightly schooled,
some error clear and dear, my life
has not taught me your desire for flight:
dismattered, pure, and free. I long
instead for the Heaven of creatures, of seasons,
of day and night. Heaven enough for me
would be this world as I know it, but redeemed
of our abuse of it and one another. It would be
the Heaven of knowing again. There is no marrying
in Heaven, and I submit; even so, I would like
to know my wife again, both of us young again,
and I remembering always how I loved her
when she was old. I would like to know
my children again, all my family, all my dear ones,
to see, to hear, to hold, more carefully
than before, to study them lingeringly as one
studies old verses, committing them to heart
forever. I would like again to know my friends,
my old companions, men and women, horses
and dogs, in all the ages of our lives, here
in this place that I have watched over all my life
in all its moods and seasons, never enough.
I will be leaving how many beauties overlooked?
A painful Heaven this would be, for I would know
by it how far I have fallen short. I have not
paid enough attention, I have not been grateful
enough. And yet this pain would be the measure
of my love. In eternity’s once and now, pain would
place me surely in the Heaven of my earthly love.