Berry, in one of these impressive essays on words, forms, and the deeper workings of literature, notes that he wasn't...

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STANDING BY WORDS: Essays

Berry, in one of these impressive essays on words, forms, and the deeper workings of literature, notes that he wasn't surprised to read this 1973 statement by Watergate's John W. Dean III: ""I would still like to be a writer. Maybe I will write a book. I love to play with words and twist phrases. I always play scrabble."" According to Berry, Dean's fatuous comment reflects a more general cultural trend--words as mere game elements. And, for Berry, this is a dangerous trend: ""Putting exclusive emphasis upon a world of words has the same result as putting exclusive emphasis on heaven; it leads to, and allows, and abets the degradation of the world. And it leads ultimately to the degradation of poetry and religion. Renunciation of the world may sustain religious or poetic fervor for a while, but sooner or later it becomes suicidal."" What, then, if not words, truly reflects the real world? Berry's answer is: form--whether manifested in a poem, a farm, or a marriage. He views this matter of form in terms of everyday behavior, valuing a sense of ""propriety"" highly, arguing that ethics may be more a function of survival than courage. (""A great many people seem to have voted for information as a simple substitute for virtue, but this ignores--among much else--the need to prepare humans to live short lives in the face of long work and long time."") He also views it in terms of literature: an astonishing strenuous yet somehow leisurely walk through English poetic tradition; a revealing, persuasive discussion of the Romantic error of imagination--by which the mind is conceived as a sovereign place. (Berry argues that only a place is a ""place,"" knowable--unlike the mind--strictly by its limits.) Like Tolstoy, Berry manages to stress both the importance of higher values and the importance of humble things; he moves deftly from Dante to Whitman, from the local to the formal, often bringing in religion--as a way ""to keep the accounting in as large a context as possible."" Along with Cynthia Ozick's recent Art and Ardor, then, this skillfully conceived book is one of the strongest contemporary arguments for literary tradition: a challenging credo, un-glib, calmly assured, clearly illuminating--and required reading for those seriously interested in the interplay between literature, ethics, and morality.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 1983

ISBN: 1582437459

Page Count: -

Publisher: North Point

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983