Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘The Wild Geese’ From Black Swan Books

Readers of Pinstripe Pulpit well know that I am an admirer of the writing of Wendell Berry, the letterpress printing of Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press, and the bookselling of Michael Courtney at Black Swan Books. It is always a happy confluence when the three come together.

Wild Geese title

This past year, 2014, was the 30th anniversary of Lexington’s Black Swan Books. I recently wrote a feature article at KYForward about Michael’s commemoration of the event with a new Larkspur Press letterpress printed broadside of a poem by Wendell Berry.

A broadside is a single sheet of paper printed on one side and meant for framing. The anniversary broadside features a poem by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry whose works are a specialty of Courtney. Black Swan’s broadsides are printed using century-old equipment by Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. The work of Berry and Zeitz is in such demand that half of the copies of the anniversary broadside were sold within the first two weeks.

The broadside edition of ‘The Wild Geese’ is limited to only 150 copies, each of which is signed by Wendell Berry and numbered. Broadsides also serve as celebration of letterpress printing itself. You can see and feel the texture of the mouldmade paper, the bite of the type in the dampened printed paper.

Courtney Wild Geese

And with limited editions printed from handset type, there is a natural scarcity. Like true “first editions” of old, once the type is broken down and returned to its drawer, that exact edition can never be recreated. Thus a moment in time is captured–preserved–but it cannot be remade.

“What we need is here.”

Wild Geese colophon

Wendell Berry at Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist

Crescent Hill signWendell Berry addressed faith, agrarianism, and why he hates “environmentalism” in a ninety minute conversation with Centre College Professor Eric Mount on Sunday. The two men sat in angled wingback chairs before a crowd of more than two hundred listeners in the sumptuous surroundings of Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist Church. In true professorial fashion, Mount made sure everyone had a copy of his ten “Conversation Starters.” What resulted was not a speech or address, but rather a potpourri of topics linked together by larger themes.

Wendell Berry on ‘Environmentalism’

Berry began by dismissing the word “environment” as useless to the conservation movement, preferring “ecosphere,” or simply “the world.” Berry argued that in order to have a real effect one needs to embrace the particular, call it by “its proper name: the Kentucky River watershed, something known to its inhabitants.” Berry insists we cast off the abstract and embrace what we know and can define.

The same is true with the idea of “agrarian.” Berry harkened to the “Jeffersonian vision” of “small landholders who had a vested interest in the local place.” “The agrarian vision is old,” pointing to Virgil’s Georgics and the Psalms.

Just as he had dismissed “environmentalism,” so, too, Berry waved off the catchphrase “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Calling it a “linguistic mess,” Berry insisted it was not possible to think globally. He said he would prefer to reduce the slogan simply to “Think!”

Berry Mount 1

Should You Trust Someone With a Billion Dollars?

Dr. Mount brought up the work of The Gates Foundation and its vast amounts of money. Berry conceded that the foundation had the money to accept the world as context, but the question is “whether or not they are competent” to do so: “Nobody knows a billion. If someone came to Henry County with a billion dollars and said ‘I’m here to help,’ I would be very much afraid.”

A Holy Economy

When the issue of religion came up, Berry was highly critical of institutionalized expressions of Christianity. The Amish are the most successful examples of Christianity, Berry maintained. Personally, he found that the Buddhist doctrine of “right livelihood” filled a big hole in his thinking, a corrective to what he found in modern expressions of Christianity.

Berry 2

Berry pulled out a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to read “For Every Man in His Work:”

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who declarest thy glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth; Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Berry said the sentiments of this prayer were “utterly alien” to our own economy. “We have an economy founded foursquare on the Seven Deadly Sins. Just go down the list.”

Wendell Berry on Imagination

Dr. Mount called an Order of the Day, and asked Berry to read his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It was written at a time when everyone was writing manifestos, Berry said, but also at a time he “felt liberated” by the language he was using, much of it drawing from Biblical precedents.

This led to a discussion of the idea of imagination. “We’ve been taught in our schools to see without imagination.” Berry said, “The power of imagination is to see things whole, to see things clearly, to see things with sanctity, to see things with love.” Berry was describing what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination.

Addressing the issue of neighborly institutions, Berry returned to a Biblical outlook. “The idea of neighborliness is the radicalness of the gospel….Your neighbor is somebody who needs your help, which is just terrible.” Such a responsibility is the imagination in action.

Nature’s Standard

Berry referenced the twelfth century poem “Complaint of Nature,” by Alain de Lille. Although he declared it a “pretty dull book,” Berry endorsed Alain’s view of “Nature as the vicar of God.” This was something Chaucer and Spencer also knew, he said.

Berry reading

Reading from Sir Albert Howard’s Introduction to the 1943 classic An Agricultural Testament, Berry stated that this expressed the foundational understanding of the sustainable agricultural movement.

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops;
great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Berry emphasized the point “there is no waste.”

CH upper window

Wendell Berry on Climate Change

The discussion eventually turned to the currently hot topic of “climate change.” Berry conceded that “I take it on faith” that there is man-made climate change. “If some scientists that I respect at a conference didn’t take it seriously I’d have a hard time taking it seriously myself.” But again, Berry said the issue won’t have a big solution, but rather “many, many small solutions.”

He also threw cold water on some of the current solutions offered by many environmentalists. “It’s easy to say ‘wind’ but have you seen those windmills? Monstrous.” Even the solar panels he installed at his own house are ugly. “We have to look at those the rest of our lives.”

Wendell Berry on Journalism

During the question and answer segment Berry also countered a self identified “environmental journalist” in the audience who asked about environmental advocacy related to water quality and coal ash. Advocacy wasn’t really the role of journalism, Berry said, “Journalists ought to be finding out what’s what. That’s our desperate need for journalism, and it seems we’re getting less and less of it all the time.”

Wendell Berry’s Vision of Hope

Berry concluded with a call for patience even in the face for what many see as an emergency. He countered such gloom with the admonition to “have as much fun as you can.” And there is always hope: “My faith is that it can’t ever get so bad that a person can’t do something to make things a little better.”

That is a profoundly humane vision, and our terrible responsibility.

Empty chairs

Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘The Wheel: For Robert Penn Warren’

Wheel 1When collecting an author’s works one of the challenging–and thus fun–areas to collect are limited editions. Poets often have some works issued first as limited edition broadsides, larger single sheets printed on one side. Private presses, particularly letterpresses, will issue poetry broadsides in limited editions, often numbered and/or signed by the poet. The often look wonderful framed on your wall.

Broadsides have their origins in the early days of printing. They were usually announcements or advertisements, and were considered disposable. A broadside was essentially what we would call a flyer.

Wendell Berry has issued a number of his poems first in broadside form from a number of different private presses over the decades. One of his earliest broadsides is from North Carolina’s legendary Palaemon Press. Palaemon specialized in Southern authors, and its author list is a veritable who’s who. (Duke has a handy checklist of Palaemon’s publications on its website.)

Palaemon printed a folio of poems dedicated to Kentuckian and Southern legend Robert Penn Warren. Apparently outside of this collected folio was another poem dedicated to Warren, Wendell Berry’s “The Wheel.”

Wheel detail 1

Issued in an edition of 126, one hundred were numbered for sale, while 26 were lettered for private distribution. This is a common limitation size and practice by private presses. This copy is designated as “W,” which means that it was part of the 26 lettered copies, and thus is slightly more desirable than the numbered copies. Along the bottom is a deckled edge, a hallmark of handmade and mould made paper often used by letterpress printers.

Berry would later use “The Wheel” as the title poem to a palm sized 1980 collection of poems published by the late lamented North Point Press.

“The Wheel” uses the motif of dance to illustrate the themes of community, both living and generational, that are so key to Berry’s worldview. And looking back almost thirty five years, we can see that the poem speaks to Berry’s position as heir to Warren as Kentucky and the South’s great active writer.

Wheel colophon

Off the Shelf Redux: Wendell Berry’s ‘November 26, 1963’

Shahn illust manAfter last week’s look at the Ben Shahn/Wendell Berry book collaboration November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three I gained some additional information from Wendell Berry.

While there is not much insight he can add, Berry writes, there are interesting tidbits about the project. He notes that his friend Denise Levertov was poetry editor at The Nation at the time. And as Shahn implies in his introduction to the volume, the project idea was the artist’s rather than Berry’s. Poet and artist never met.

Berry writes, “Most important to me is that when Ben Shahn inscribed my poem, he did not reproduce my lines as I wrote them. It seems he is not referring to a change in the text itself, but rather the calligraphic liberties Shahn took in adding multiple line breaks when Berry wrote the poem in relatively long lines of verse. Such a change can cause a difference in how one reads, and even understands, the poem. But Shahn’s was envisioning the project as a graphic whole. While Shahn did not change the words or their order, he clearly did view them as malleable, a medium with which he was free to work.

Berry Nov 26 text 3

Berry points the reader to the original printing in The Nation “to see the poem as written.” On this November 26, fifty years after the original date of the poem, yes, enjoy the moving Ben Shahn interpretation, but don’t forget The Nation’s faithful rendering as Wendell Berry wrote it.

Off the Shelf: ‘November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three’ by Wendell Berry & Ben Shahn

Berry Nov 26 text 1

So much symbolism is bound up in John F. Kennedy it is difficult to separate the myth from the reality. For those my age, and even a decade older, JFK is someone we know only from photographs and old video clips. It is that last video clip from Dallas that transformed the man into the legend.

Wendell Berry, a novelist and poet still in his twenties at the time, was understandably moved. In response to Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, and his state funeral on November 25, Berry wrote his reflections in verse as “November 26, 1963,” a consideration the day after.

Berry Nov 26 text 2

Berry published the poem in The Nation magazine (December 21) where it was read by artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Lithuanian born, Shahn’s father had been exiled to Siberia by the czars as a political dissident. Eventually the family emigrated from their homeland to the United States.

Shahn embraced leftist ideology in his politics and social realism in his art. Among Shahn’s famous subjects were Sacco and Vanzetti and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. for TIME magazine. He was also well-known as a Depression-era photographer for the Farm Security Administration.

Shahn Nov 26 illust horse

Kennedy’s assassination was, then, a perfect subject for Shahn, and Berry’s poem was the perfect vehicle. Shahn writes,

It was shortly after those shattering few days that the following poem appeared in The Nation. I found it extraordinarily moving. It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared.

When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of a last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me. I have hoped, in some small way, to help monumentalize those days so that we may not so soon become inured to an unacceptable violence, a failure, a profound sadness.

What resulted was a lovely oblong slipcased volume published by George Braziller in May 1964, only Berry’s second book. Shahn frequently used a block style calligraphic text with his artwork, and he employs the technique with great effect here. His hand drawn title fills the front cover, and the text of the poem is rendered in the same style throughout faced with Shahn’s illustrations on the left.

Berry Nov 26 cover

There are two editions, a limited signed edition and a regular trade edition. According to Russell Freedman’s Wendell Berry bibliography, 3013 copies of the limited signed edition were issued, printed on hand laid paper from the Italian mill Fabriano. Somewhat mysteriously, online bookseller Daedalus found a cache of new, uncirculated copies a few years ago, and sold them for a reasonable sum (I’m sure all are long gone now). The trade edition, also slipcased but slightly smaller in size, is fairly easily found for not too much money. The black slipcase is often faded, and the cloth cover is often foxed.

Berry Shahn signatures

As the nation remembers its most recent fallen president, take a moment to read Berry’s thoughtful poem. It well captures the mood of our nation fifty years ago.

Shahn Nov 26 illust color


See also: Off the Shelf Redux: Wendell Berry’s ‘November 26, 1963′

Off the Shelf: Allen Tate, Wendell Berry, & Sewanee’s Discarded ‘The Hidden Wound’

Hidden Wound cover

Years ago, perhaps when I was still in graduate school, I stopped at a Chattanooga used bookshop when passing through. One has a mental list of authors to check, and I happened to find an uncommon thing: a hardcover first edition of Wendell Berry’s 1970 book on race and the South, The Hidden Wound. The disappointment was that it clearly was an ex-library copy. An ex-library copy can be the ultimate disappointment–a rare book that is worthless to the collector.

Hidden Wound discardBut this first edition was different. It had been discarded by the nearby prestigious Sewanee: The University of the South, and on the front pastedown was a donor’s bookplate. It read: “This Book is placed in The Library of the University of the South by Allen Tate.” I paid whatever small price they were asking, thrilled at this unique association copy.

Allen Tate was a Kentuckian by birth, and one of the Fugitive Poets who attended Vanderbilt University in the 1920s. Several of them were later part of the The Nashville Agrarians who wrote the classic I’ll Take My Stand, a book that has had a great deal of influence on me.

During the 1940s, Tate, and his friend I’ll Take My Stand contributor Andrew Lytle, transformed the small literary journal The Sewanee Review into a national powerhouse. After a time away from the South teaching at the University of Minnesota, Tate returned to live in Sewanee, Tennessee during the 1960s.

Hidden Wound bookplateIt was during the ’60s that another Kentucky novelist, poet and essayist was rising to prominence. Wendell Berry was an authentic agrarian in a way the Nashville Agrarians had never been. Tate took favorable notice of Berry, and the two eventually began a correspondence.

I had long intended to show Wendell Berry my book as I felt like having it signed by him would bring its association full circle. But I was unsure how Berry might react. I can’t imagine one would relish finding one’s book discarded from a prominent university library. But it was the donor I thought Berry would be interested to see.

And indeed he was. When I showed the volume to Berry recently at his home he was visibly moved that Tate had seen fit to attach his name to it. Berry spoke of how he had once made a public quip about how few of the Southern Agrarians had seen fit to stay in the South. Tate, Warren, and John Crowe Ransom had all taken positions in the North. Tate had shown great patience with him, Berry said, writing to explain that they had had no choice: no university in the South had wanted them.

Berry told that Tate had felt that The Hidden Wound had been too apologetic on the race issue, although he pointed to Tate’s poem “The Swimmers” as an example of Tate himself wrestling with race and the South. In the poem, Tate tells the story of stumbling across a lynching as a young boy in Winchester, Kentucky when he and friends were on their way for a summer swim.

Hidden Wound InscriptionBerry happily inscribed the book, expressing his appreciation for Allen Tate:
“I am proud of this copy/of this book for I greatly/respect the memory and/the work of Allen Tate./Wendell Berry/9/23/13”

Of all the different Wendell Berry volumes I own, this one is now the most special to me. Not only does it have such wonderful personal association value, but because of it I have the memory of the book giving Wendell such great pleasure at seeing it.

Hidden Wound endpapers

Road Trip to Lexington: Black Swan Books

More Books

My old University of Kentucky dorm, Haggin Hall, was demolished this spring. Now it’s just a hole in the ground. K-Lair, the nearby grill where I bought chicken sandwiches as a freshman, is gone, too. Twenty years on, the old alma mater is a lot different than it used to be. Such was the realization last month when I found myself in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the best places in the world.

Some things are better in Lexington, though, and one of those is my favorite bookstore, Black Swan Books. Recently featured on a New York Times blog, the Lexington landmark is not only going strong, but it’s far bigger than it was when I went to college.

Black Swan front

Black Swan is on my short list of must-visits on any trip to Lexington. I can talk politics with Michael (not for the faint of heart), and invariably find more books than I can reasonably leave with. On this visit, after a welcoming hug from Michael’s wife Kim, Michael asked, “Do you owe me money?” (The answer was–and usually is–“yes,” but we shan’t dwell on that.)

I first strolled into Black Swan Books as an undergraduate, and I’ve been going back ever since. I worked there for awhile back in the ’90s, running the shop when Michael was out of town and sometimes going with Michael on big book hauls. I also put a lot of dust jacket covers on books. A lot.Michael

As usual, Michael had just bought hundreds of “new” books, which crowded the walkways in tomato boxes. (I learned from Michael years ago that tomato boxes are perfect for storing and moving books. The cardboard is sturdy, they have handles and a lid, and are just the right size for heavy books. You can usually get them free. Alas, the books that go in them are not.)

Book boxes

Black Swan is stuffed with a high quality selection of first and limited fine press editions, reading copies, and leather bound books. Don’t miss the rare book room, where the envy inducing books are locked behind glass. Not to worry, Michael would be glad to sell some to you.

Berry LarkspurAnd if you like Wendell Berry, Michael stocks one of the best selections of his books in the country, particularly of signed and limited editions. Since Wendell Berry writes faster than I can read, there’s often a volume available that had slipped through the cracks. This trip was no different as I found a Larkspur Press edition I somehow missed. As usual, I didn’t leave Black Swan empty handed.

If you find yourself in Lexington don’t miss a visit to Black Swan Books. It’s pretty much guaranteed to have something you’ll want.

Bookshelf 1



Leather Books

Berry photo 

Berry signing

Rare Book Room

Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘The Gift of Gravity’

Gift of Gravity coverIn my dabbling with collecting first editions over the years. Wendell Berry’s works have held my attention more than that of any other writer. From a collecting standpoint Berry has a huge, and ever growing, oeuvre. (I’ve told Berry that he writes faster than I can read.) He is a prolific writer of not one or even two genres, but three (fiction, poetry, and essays). And Berry’s works have also appeared in a wide range of limited editions with small presses and print runs (broadsides and chapbooks spanning over five decades). There is always a little treasure out there that you never even knew existed.

Gift of Gravity backRecently I picked up what actually is a relatively available edition, England’s Golgonooza Press collection of Wendell Berry poems, The Gift of Gravity. Published in 2002 in stiff wrappers only (no hardcover edition, so far as I can tell), it offers not simply a British edition of an American book, but an entirely unique collection intended for the British market.

Interestingly, an earlier small press edition using the title The Gift of Gravity was issued as a joint effort by Deerfield Press and Gallery Press in 1979. Limited to only 300 copies, it was signed on the colophon by Wendell Berry, and contained only the poems “The Gift of Gravity” and “Grief.” I purchased my copy some years ago. Prices appear to have increased since then.

Gift of Gravity limitedGift of Gravity lmtd text








Gift limited sig

And while we’re on the topic of Golgonooza Press, in 1991 they issued a collection of Wendell Berry’s essays, Standing on Earth. Like The Gift of Gravity, it’s an edition unique to the British market. Available in both hardcover and paper wraps, the hardcover is more difficult to find.

Standing on Earth sigStanding on Earth cover









Poking around for obscure, somewhat ignored, editions can be a rewarding way to own a collectible copy from whatever author’s work you may be chasing.

Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘St. Vith, December 21, 1944’

Part of Wendell Berry’s long running Sabbath series of poems, “St. Vith, December 21, 1944” captures a moving moment during the brutality of the Battle of the Bulge. American forces withdrew from St. Vith on that date, leaving the Belgian city to the Germans. General Bruce Clarke ordered the Americans out having said, “This terrain is not worth a nickel an acre to me.”

This limited edition signed broadside was handset and printed by the great Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press in Kentucky, under whom I apprenticed sixteen years ago. It was commissioned by Michael Courtney, proprietor of the best bookstore in Kentucky, Black Swan Books (where I also worked years ago). Michael commissioned annual broadsides for several years from Gray. For me, the confluence of Larkspur Press, Black Swan Books and Wendell Berry brings about a perfect match.

It was one of the first Wendell Berry broadsides I ever purchased, possibly the first. It was framed in Columbia, South Carolina while I was a graduate student. Special instructions were given to display the lovely deckled edges.

I suppose this entry isn’t really “Off the Shelf,” but “Off the Wall” didn’t have quite the same connotation.

A Merry Christmas from Pinstripe Pulpit.

Tolkien’s Kentucky Hobbits

I have been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in anticipation of tomorrow’s movie release. When I first read There and Back Again thirty years ago as a boy in Kentucky the Shire seemed very far away. I would have loved to run into a round door in the side of one of the hills around my house.

One of the more interesting, and obscure, essays on the background of The Hobbit was written by the late Guy Davenport, and collected in his book The Geography of the Imagination. Davenport was a native of South Carolina, but spent most of his career as a professor at my alma mater, the University of Kentucky in Lexington. A Rhodes Scholar, and ultimately a genius certified by the MacArthur Foundation, Davenport is the sort of fellow who constantly exposes one’s own lack of knowledge and sophistication with every essay of his you read.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, Davenport had been a student of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. Davenport writes in his short essay “Hobbitry” that Tolkien was a “vague and incomprehensible lecturer” who “had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse and Welsh….How was I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’?”

But it was a chance encounter Davenport had in Shelbyville, Kentucky with a former classmate of Tolkien—a history teacher named Allen Barnett—that changed Davenport’s perspective about his former professor’s clever tales. To Davenport’s amazement, Barnett had no idea that Tolkien had turned into a writer, and had never read any of the adventures of Middle Earth.

“Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that,” Barnett told Davenport.

“And out the window I could see tobacco barns,” Davenport writes. “The charming anachronism of the Hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way….Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phonebook, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living.”

It is no surprise, then, that Wendell Berry, a friend and colleague of Davenport, writes hilariously about the adventures of fictional Kentucky farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot, not named after a hobbit, but rather the genuine country people of Kentucky.

When I first read Davenport’s “Hobbitry” twenty years ago I felt like the earth had moved. It was revolutionary! I had grown up around that tobacco and those tobacco barns.

New Zealand may provide the dramatic scenery for Peter Jackson’s movies, but it was the rolling hills and tobacco country of Kentucky that was the real backdrop for Tolkien’s Shire.

The Shire hadn’t been as far away as I thought.


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