Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wendell Berry and Pete Seeger

Interviewed in Shenandoah magazine, Wendell Berry says, "The poet is a wilderness looking out at the wild." He also says, "The music in a song or in a poem is its continuity, what keeps it coherent and alive. It then becomes a sort of metaphor for whatever it is that keeps us alive in the world, all of us creatures together. But what you’re trying to do in any kind of writing is to keep the thing continuous from end to end. You can interrupt a continuity for certain effects, if you want to — you can put a caesura somewhere in the middle of a line — but if the continuity isn’t strong enough to accept the interruption and carry through it, then you’ve lost more than you’ve gained."

Janne and I happened to catch parts of a program on Pete Seeger this morning while eating our Sunday waffles. This was one in a series of extended musical features on PBS to compliment their semi-annual fundraising drive. As I watched footage of Seeger, now 84 and still singing in Carnegie Hall, I felt renewed admiration for him, his life, his music. He was banned from TV for 15 years for his politics but went ahead with his performing anyway. Finally, the Smothers Brothers invited him onto their show, where he sang his anti-Vietnam War song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." The studio cut that song out of the program, a decision that was met with a huge outcry. It was awhile before that song was aired. Along with his dogged commitment to Civil Rights and anti-war activism (through his songwriting and personal performances), he took on the issue of the pollution of the Hudson River and almost singlehandedly mobilized public support for cleaning it up. He never does a performance without having the audience participate. And he continues to favor audiences of children. His life is a manifestation of the credo, "Think globally; act locally." Here is Seeger singing "Guantanamero." And singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

I admire Wendell Berry and Pete Seeger for similar reasons. Both are consummate artists who have devoted their work to good causes. Berry's causes are conservation, peace, and respect for the work of hands and the virtues of basic farming. His essay, "The Failure of War," is a thoughtful manifesto for peace.

The Man Born to Farming
by Wendell Berry
The Grower of Trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
That the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
Like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
Descending in the dark?

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