How to Be a Poet (to remind myself) by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Happy National Poetry Month from Common Good Collective. Launched in April 1996, by the Academy of American Poets, it reminds the public that poets have an integral role to play in our culture and that poetry matters. On this last day of April, we are devoting this reader to poetry.

Building community in a diverse, fragmented society is like the work of poetry. A poet makes connections among words. A poem joins unlike things, and in the joining, creates new ways of seeing. One skill needed for building community is the ability to see how two, unlike things, when joined together, could create something unique in the world. The task is to always remember, even in moments of confusion and despair, that, as Maggie Smith writes, “you could make this place beautiful.”

Reading poetry is a practice for building community. It requires patience. The gifts of a good poem reveal themselves slowly, over the course of several readings. Often, new insights are gleaned best with another person or community with whom to read and poem. And a multiplicity of meanings comes forward in poems, just as it does on any block in any neighborhood.

Slowing down, paying attention to details, and empty spaces, expecting an abundance of meaning and gifts: all the things that make poetry important also make for good community building work. The meaning and gifts of our blocks, and the sorts of work we need to do together, become apparent when we slow down and listen to our neighbors. The abundance of gifts packed into every line of poetry and every block of a city or town offer themselves as gifts when we pause to listen and to receive.

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.

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