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

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