How is marriage like poetry? Ask Wendell Berry, who wrote a 1982 essay exploring the question. Fred Sanders explores that essay’s comparison of marriage to poetry, and explains why Berry’s vituperative denunciation of same-sex marriage opponents was so inconsistent with Berry’s past writing and thinking about marriage. Excerpt from Sanders, who is as puzzled as I am, but far more irenic and charitable about it:
“It may be,” wrote Berry near the end of the essay,
that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Artists love limits. As the great formophile William Wordsworth said, they “scorn not the sonnet” with its ancient, fixed rules, just as “nuns fret not” at the convent door. Likewise, when Auguste Rodin bloviated that “no truly great man has ever confined his love to only one woman,” lovers know that Rodin should have talked less and sculpted more, for he sculpted like a demigod but spake as a fool.
It is the keeping of the form, Berry wrote, that gives us our instruction. “We had been prepared to learn what we had the poor power to expect. But fidelity to the form has driven us beyond expectation. The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought.”
Sanders quotes more from Berry’s 1982 essay, which read:
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 before the beginning.
Sanders wants Berry to explain how he reaches his current conclusion about same-sex marriage, in light of his past writing that marriage is intrinsically one thing, and not another. So many people who back Berry in this must not know a thing about his past writing. How is it that Berry, who, despite his advanced age, is still a prolific and opinionated writer on his standard themes, only got around to saying a single word about gay marriage in 2012, in his interview with National Review, and, in his first lengthy public statement about his views, delivered a jeremiad spoken as if he were a rusticated Larry Kramer?
If Berry has changed his mind about the immutability of the essential nature of marriage, then how? Why? He owes his readers and admirers a lot more than his sneering and insults.
Many readers of this blog have defended Berry’s intemperate remarks by saying that he must only be responding to the meanness of the church towards gays in the past. Berry has certainly never been shy about condemning Christians for not living up to our beliefs, or living them out fully. That’s fine. Prophets are supposed to call us back to fidelity. If we have been cruel and unfeeling towards gays and lesbians — and we certainly have — then we must repent of that. No argument here. But that is completely beside the point. Sins of commission and omission against gay folks are not a kind of alchemy that makes marriage something it is not. What so many same-sex marriage supporters don’t seem to understand is that many of us do not believe we are free to say that marriage can be anything we want it to be. We believe that marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance.
Wendell Berry used to believe that too. Now he has apparently joined the chorus of worthies who, having not found their voice until this moment, speak as if it is as plain as day that gay marriage is just, and it always was perfectly obvious, and if it had been up to them and not those bigoted Jesus freaks, we would have had gay marriage a hundred years ago.