Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Prime Passage: "The Responsibility of the Poet" by Wendell Berry (1988)

(From the essay "The Responsibility of the Poet," found in Berry's book, What Are People For?)
"A poem reminds us...of the spiritual elation that we call 'inspiration' or 'gift.' Or perhaps we ought to say that it should do so, it should be humble enough to do so, because we know that no permanently valuable poem is made by the merely intentional manipulation of its scrutable components. Hence, it reminds us of love. It is amateur work, lover's work. What we now call 'professionalism' is anathema to it. A good poem reminds us of love because it cannot be written or read in distraction; it cannot be read or understood by anyone thinking of praise or publication or promotion. ...

"We are now inclined to make much of this distinction between amateur and professional, but it is reassuring to know that these words first were used in opposition to each other less than two hundred years ago. Before the first decade of the nineteenth century, no one felt the need for such a distinction -- which established itself, I suppose, because of the industrial need to separate love from work, and so it was made at first to discriminate in favor of professionalism. To those who wish to defend the possibility of good or responsible work, it remains useful today because of the need to discriminate against professionalism.

"Professional standards, the standards of ambition and selfishness, are always sliding downward toward expense, ostentation, and mediocrity. They tend always to narrow the ground of judgment. But amateur standards, the standards of love, are always straining upward toward the humble and the best. They enlarge the ground of judgment. The context of love is the world." (p.89-90)