Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Standing by Words

I

n marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one's own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living with the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

There are two aspects to these forms. The first is the way of making or acting or doing, which is to some extent technical. That is to say that definitions - setting of limits - are involved. The names poetry and marriage are given only to certain things, not to anything or to everything. Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music; if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry. Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditionally formed sort, for instance, does not propose that its difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one's quarrel with one's wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed - imposed before the beginning.


Standing by Words by Wendell Berry

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