Wendell Berry on Dr Williams with some literary asides on another Dr Williams

by Anna Blanch on January 16, 2009

In a Motel Parking Lot, Thinking of Dr Williams

I.

The poem is important, but
not more than the people
whose survival it serves,

one of the necessities, so they may
speak what is true, and have
the patience for beauty: the weighted

grainfield, the shady street,
the well-laid stone and the changing tree
whose branches spread above.

For want of songs and stories
they have dug away the soil,
paved over what is left,

set up their perfunctory walls
in tribute to no god,
for the love of no man or woman,

so that the good that was here
cannot be called back
except by long waiting, by great

sorrows remembered and to come
by invoking the thunderstones
of the world, and the vivid air.

II.

The poem is important,
as the want of it
proves. It is the stewardship

of its own possibility,
the past remembering itself
in the presence of

the present, the power learned
and handed down to see
what is present

and what is not: the pavement
laid down and walked over
regardlessly–by exiles, here

only because they are passing.
Oh, remember the oaks that were
here, the leaves, purple and brown,

falling, the nuthatches walking
headfirst down the trunks,
crying “onc! onc!” in the brightness

as they are doing now
in the cemetery across the street
where the past and the dead

keep each other. To remember,
to hear and remember, is to stop
and walk on again

to a livelier, surer measure.
It is dangerous
to remember the past only

for its own sake, dangerous
to deliver a message
you did not get.

“In a Motel Parking Lot, Thinking of Dr. Williams” expresses Berry’s tribute to William Carlos Williams as one of the essential American poetic voices, without whose wisdom a culture will stagnate. Wendell Berry is one of America’s greatest living poets and someone whose work and life I am gaining a greater appreciation for.

Though it is a different Dr Williams, it got me thinking about a Dr Williams I am more familiar with. An Australian colleague of mine, Dr Matheson Russell, now of the University of Auckland, has recently published an edited collection of essays about the teachings and writings of Dr Rowan Williams – this collection has essays from a number of Australian and New Zealand scholars including Michael Jensen is titled On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays. Dr Rowan Williams has himself just published a book on the christian imagination of Dostoevsky (Baylor University Press), titled Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (the making of the Christian Imagination) (2008). An excerpt of which reads:

“In writing fiction in which no formula is allowed unchallengeable victory, Dostoevsky has implicitly developed what might be called a theology of writing, specifically of narrative writing. Every fiction is at its most fictional in its endings, those pretences of closure and settlement. Every morally and religiously serious fiction has to project something beyond that ending or otherwise signal a level of incompletion…. The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act as if history is over, as if the description of what contingently is becomes the sole possible account of language…. The novel ought to be a stout defender of the independence of eschatology in its most robust sense – that is, a defender of the apparently obvious but actually quite vulnerable conviction that the present does not possess the future.”

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