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.