On Poetry and Marriage: Revisiting the Culture War with Wendell Berry


A few weeks ago, back when I was a more productive blogger, I wrote about what I thought was an unjustified appropriation of a phrase from poet-farmer Wendell Berry by two opponents of gay marriage, Anthony Esolen and his book-reviewer Matthew J. Franck. Berry, I pointed out, came out in favor of gay marriage just last year, and I quoted Fred Clark’s insistence that the gesture was “wholly of a piece with everything else the man has written and argued and defended.”

Today I want to spend some time justifying that statement. I do it because I don’t really like the culture war (believe it or not) and I’m fascinated by those rare figures—like Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and (sometimes) Pope Francis—embraced in equal measure by both sides. Berry is one of those figures. You’re as likely to see him quoted by Emily Stimpson as by Fred Clark, by Casey Fleming as by Rod Dreher.

I promise I’m not trying to claim Berry for my side of the war. I’m doing it because I think figures like Berry, Day, etc. present a unique opportunity to talk across that divide. When, for example, Jake Meador accuses Berry of changing his mind on marriage or Stimpson (more preposterously) suggests that Berry just hasn’t thought enough about marriage, well, I think there are things in his writing that they’re missing. And maybe they’ll listen to him if they won’t listen to me.


In 1982, Berry published an essay called “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms.” The essay, as you’d guess, draws out an extended metaphor between marriage and poetry, arguing that form is as essential in marriage as it is poetry. In essence, Berry claims that just as a poem must be certain things or it’s not a poem, a marriage, too, must meet certain criteria or it’s not a marriage.

Even though it’s more than thirty years old, the essay has a lot to say about the questions of “redefining marriage” that have dominated the past decade. And “Poetry and Marriage” starts out looking like an argument for exclusion. “In marriage as in poetry,” he argues, “the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making.” He elaborates:

That is to say that definitions—setting of limits—are involved. The names poetryand marriage are given only to certain things, not to anything or to everything. Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music; if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry. Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditionally formed sort, for instance, does not propose that its difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one’s quarrel with one’s wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed—imposed beforethe beginning.

This is the boilerplate, formalist argument against gay marriage, isn’t it? We can’t call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Certain limits are imposed before the beginning. Square circlestails and legsdogs vs. cats, and all that.

Then Berry goes on to write, beautifully, about the importance of limits, the way they spur creativity and inspire the work of both marriage and poetry, and instantly we’re transported into the best ideas of the marriage traditionalists, the ideas that—however wrong those writers are in the final analysis—make their writings on marriage worth reading.

So, for approximately its first three quarters, “Poetry and Marriage” reads like an essay by Anthony Esolen. Along the way, Berry throws traditionalists lots of red meat, complaining about “debunkers happy to point out that Yeats was ‘silly like us’ or that Thomas Jefferson may have had a Negro slave as a mistress—and so we are disencumbered of the burden of great lives, set free to be as cynical or desperate as we please.” He even says that we moderns tend to replace “sexual discipline” with “the chemicals, devices, and procedures of ‘birth control.’”

Then something changes. Specifically, Berry considers Walt Whitman. Whitman, of course, wrote in free verse, poetry without a definite rhyme scheme or meter. This causes a problem: how to reconcile the “formless” poetry of Whitman with Berry’s insistence that poetry depends on form?

A traditionalist in the George/Esolen/Reilly mold could say, That’s easy: it’s not a poem. Whitman’s not a poet, however much we might want him to beSquirrels, rabbits, etc. And he could point back to everything Berry had just written. Someone like Robert Reilly might even call Whitman’s writing “radical individualism” or lament its “autonomy” and tie it to the flawed philosophies of Rousseau or Friedrich Nietzsche.

By the way, is anybody surprised that such an essay has already been written? Is anybody surprised it was published in The Public Discourse?

In 2012, Mark Signorelli wrote:

The freedom in ‘free verse,’ then, is the freedom of modernity, the conception of freedom absolutely divorced from all conception of form. It is what Servais Pinckaers called the ‘freedom of indifference,’ which he said was ‘practically identified with the will … In this way it came to constitute, in some way, by itself alone, the very being of the person, at the source of all action.’ It is that conception of freedom that, as applied to persons, has slowly eroded belief in the moral essence of human nature, redefining human liberty as nothing more than the unfettered will. The ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ is the same ‘free’ in ‘free market’ and ‘free love’—the freedom to ‘do what we like.’ It is a corresponding caprice that moves the writer of ‘free verse.’ … The poet claiming his freedom from meter is merely asserting his desire to write with a perfect indifference toward the telos of his art.

But Berry doesn’t do this. He writes, “[Free verse] has to be fitted in if I am to respect my scheme, and if I acknowledge, as I certainly do, that much free verse is poetry.”

He starts by suggesting that maybe free verse is something like—but not quite the same as—real poetry: as courtship is to marriage, for example.

But then he rejects that:

But if Whitman’s work is the prime example of the freeing of verse, it is an example of something else, too, for at its best Whitman’s line, as we will see if we try to shorten or lengthen it, is a form. He set his line freely only to make it into a kind of line that we recognize anywhere we see it—a new power, a new music, added to poetry, which can be learned and used. Theoretically, I suppose, any line can be written in a different way, but I don’t think that we are tempted to imagine this line as anything but what it is:

Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the

mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground…

And such newness does not destroy the old set forms, but renews them in renewing our understanding of what a line of verse is, our sense of its properties of duration and coherence, beginning and end.

Such newness does not destroy the old set forms, but renews them. Following Berry’s metaphor, he’s allowing that newness in our idea of marriage can be good. It does not destroy the old form, but helps us better understand it.

And all of a sudden the argument regarding marriage is no longer Robert Reilly’s, or Robert George’s, but something closer to Jonathan Rauch’s, where a new understanding of the possibilities of marriage doesn’t break the old understanding but strengthens it. Rauch, in a series of arguments too often overlooked by the “natural law” right, argues that celebrating gay marriage signals “the cultural primacy of marriage” and “sends a positive and reassuring message to children about both the importance of marriage and the stability of their community.” This is close, too, to the reason Joseph Bottum gave for his kind of/sort of about-face on the issue. “Same-sex marriage,” Bottum wrote, “might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.”

In On the Meaning of Sex, which I reviewed last year, J. Budziszewski says a couple of worthwhile (really!) things. One of them has to do with the value of watching other people get married. Seeing the radiant couple at the center of a wedding, Budziszewski writes, “husbands are more aware of what draws them to their wives, wives of what draws them to their husbands.” Resonating with the couple’s joy, he says, we rejoice in our own happiness. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have felt that while watching a same-sex couple say their vows. And I’m sure I’m not the first person to note that gay couples, like straight ones, tie families together, connect family traditions, and, in marrying, bind themselves not just to each other but—to borrow more of Berry’s words—“to the community of marriage, the amorous communion at which all couples sit.”

But there’s more: after mentioning my sister-in-law’s wedding in my last post, I’ve kept thinking about it. And the more I think about it, the more I’m astonished by it. I cherish my wedding (as I hope was clear in my last post), but compared to hers, my wedding risked little, cost little, and met no resistance. Most obviously, she and her wife had to travel to a different state to get married. But on a deeper level, getting married meant coming out, finally and publicly, to all of the members of her very conservative extended family. That was a real risk, and it came with no guarantee of reward: either from her family, or from society at large, since she was living in a state where her marriage wasn’t recognized. Still, she and her wife did it. And they did it, get this, for the sake of marriage.

To return to the metaphor, this is the point Berry is making about Walt Whitman. It would be easy to say, using Berry’s own language, that Whitman is rejecting the risk of form, and as a result his poems can’t reap the rewards of true poetry. But Berry tells us that would be wrong. Berry does Whitman the courtesy of taking seriously his commitment to his form and, in doing so, sees the risk inherent that particular form. So when he says that he can recognize Whitman’s poetry as a variation that affirms poetic principles, he’s also saying that he can see the good in variation itself.

There’s more to say about this, and so I’m going to try to write a part B to this post this weekend. Berry drops hints throughout the essay that his generous approach to Whitman’s poetry comes from his own (deep) experience with nature. In my follow-up, I’ll connect those hints to that larger theme, nature, and try to show how Berry’s idea of natural law differs from that of some of his fans. But first, I owe y’all a post on Reilly’s Making Gay Okay—look for that on Thursday.


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