Lessons Learned at Wendell Berry’s Kitchen Table

“These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors. A reader will like them best, I think, who reads them in similar circumstances—at least in a quiet room. They would be most favorably heard if read aloud into a kind of quietness that is not afforded by any public place. I hope that some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort.”

—From Wendell Berry’s preface to A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997

Composing the choral music settings of Wendell Berry’s poetry that you hear on the album required me to spend a lot of quiet time with the poems. Reading them as he suggested—with patience and usually in quiet, often outdoors—was certainly its own reward. As I studied, I realized that I wanted the listener of the music to also hear the poems without the influence of music. I wanted them—you—to enjoy drinking from the source. And so I hatched the idea, which seemed as exciting as it was unlikely, to persuade Wendell Berry himself to read his poems for the album.

To my surprise, he agreed to the project and invited me to visit his home in Kentucky in August of 2012. (While I drove a little rental car from from Cincinnati, I finally started to understand the ecology and landscapes in the Port William novels and appreciated the lines “I love the passing light / upon this valley now green / in early summer...” from a song I had recently finished for the album.)

Wendell greeted me kindly—“Hello Mr. Maxfield”—and introduced me to Tanya, who joined us for much of our afternoon together. They offered me a snack of freshly picked cherry tomatoes, still warm from the sun. I felt tongue-tied and intellectually out of my league in their company, but I was delighted to be there.

Knowing that I was visiting from Utah, he mentioned his having enjoyed many radio broadcasts by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and even cheerfully mimicked the show’s announcer) and commented on Mitt Romney (disapproval) and Edward Abbey (approval). He also expressed a preference for the low hills of his home place over the jagged, exaggerated mountains of my native West, which he winkingly dismissed as being overly Romantic, like Shelley. (I’ll keep my opinion of low hills to myself for now.)

When it was time to record his poetry, still sitting at the kitchen table, he invited me to direct him and make sure he performed to my standards—of course I didn’t take that advice and instead tried to let things unfold naturally. As he read from photocopies of his published books, he would occasionally pause, mark the pages with his pencil, and say things like, “Well, I wouldn’t do that if I were doing it again” and “I’ve grown increasingly prejudiced against semicolons.”

And although Wendell is as human as all of the other people I admire and appreciate in my life, I’ll note a few impressions that have remained vivid from our Sunday afternoon together.

First, he treated me with kindness and warmth, though I was a stranger to him. He gave me the gift of his full, undivided attention. I’m trying to model this warmth and attentiveness.

Second, Wendell seemed to treat his own work as an open canon, which is to say that he demonstrated a lively interest in updating even his long-published poetry. I see this as evidence of ongoing learning and an appreciative attitude towards the world around him. Always something to discover. I see this openness to learning in my four-year-old son, too.

Third, although Wendell is arguable the expert in his own poetry, he deferred to my expertise in setting the poems to music. I saw in this an internal clarity about the boundaries of his competence. This is a hard lesson for me to learn since my confidence outstrips my competence routinely. It’s good to know yourself and see yourself as one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Share this post