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Form, Faith, and Freedom: Wendell Berry on What Poetry Teaches Us about the Secret of Marriage

“The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

I often think that literature is the original internet, each footnote and citation and allusion a hyperlink to another text. I was reminded of this recently, while devouring Anne Lamott’s superb book on imperfection, grace, and belonging, where she quotes an instantly enchanting passage by poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry. Compelled to find its origin, I was led to a beautiful 1982 essay titled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” found in Berry’s altogether magnificent collection Standing by Words: Essays (public library | IndieBound). Berry explores the unexpected but profound parallels between poetry and marriage — or, more broadly, union — through the lens of form as both a hedge against and an embracing of the unknown. It is at once a celebration of the idea that life is not a straight line but a zig-zag and an insightful look at how form and structure — often expressed today through our fascination with daily routines and our constant quest to perfect our own — ground us into more liberated lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘I’ll Be You and You Be Me’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Berry considers the essential interplay of intention and uncertainty in both marriage and the poetic practice:

The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join one another only by joining the unknown. We must not be misled by the procedures of experimental thought: in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result that we choose without knowing what it is.


Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you — and marriage, time, life, history, and the world — will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.

In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

These forms, Berry argues, have two aspects: One is the setting of limits and the adherence to definition that “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.” But it is the second aspect that is more interesting, because it is more counterintuitive yet assuring. In a sentiment calling to mind Henry Miller’s assertion that “it’s only when we demand that we are hurt” and Anaïs Nin’s clarion call for inviting the unknown, Berry writes:

The second aspect of these forms is an opening, a generosity, toward possibility. The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome — though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon the hope.

A certain awesome futurity, then, is the inescapable condition of word-giving — as it is, in fact, of all speech — for we speak into no future that we know, much less into one that we desire, but into one that is unknown. But that it is unknown requires us to be generous toward it, and requires our generosity to be full and unconditional. The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known. The given word may come to appear to be wrong, or wrongly given. But the unknown still lies ahead of it, and so who is finally to say? If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right. As growth has called it into question, further growth may reaffirm it.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Knowing the value of daily routines, for instance, it isn’t hard to intuit the role of form as a sensemaking and orienteering mechanism for our lives. Berry considers the deeper psychology:

To have a life or a place or a poem that is formless — into which anything at all may, or may not, enter — is to be condemned, at best, to bewilderment.


Form is the means by which error is recognized and the means by which correctness is recognized.

There are, it seems, two Muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. The first muse is the one mainly listened to in a cheap-energy civilization, in which “economic health” depends on the assumption that everything desirable lies within easy reach of anyone. To hear the second muse one must move outside the cheap-energy enclosure. It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live in the bitterness of disappointment.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

As paradoxical as it may appear at first blush, and contrary to how Amelia Earhart felt about it, Berry argues that the true value of form — in poetry, in marriage, in life — is that it grants us more freedom:

It is true that any form can be applied with a stupid rigidity… But a set form can be used also to summon into a poem, or into a life, its unforeseen belongings, and thus is not rigid but freeing — an invocation to unknown possibility. Form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed be inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the price of admission or permission, the enablement to be free. But the connection may be even closer, more active and interesting, than that; it may be that form, strictly kept, enforces freedom. The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.

He returns to the philosophical parallels between poetry and marriage, revealed by form:

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration — the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject.

Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives.

It may be, then, 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.

In this way the keeping of the form instructs us… The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Echoing Nietzsche’s belief in the generative power of difficulty, Berry cautions that between the place we are and the rewarding place we never expected to be lies the place we don’t want to be — and it’s important that we stay there a while, live the unease and inhabit our resistance:

Sometimes one gets stuck, and must stay there for a while.” That necessity to “stay there for a while” is the gist of the meaning of form. Forms join us to time, to the consequences and fruitions of our own passing. The Zen student, the poet, the husband, the wife — none knows with certainty what he or she is staying for, but all know the likelihood that they will be staying “a while”: to find out what they are staying for. And it is the faith of all of these disciplines that they will not stay to find that they should not have stayed.

That faith has nothing to do with what is usually called optimism. As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.

In much of life — as in poetry, as in marriage — that faith, Berry argues, springs from surrendering to the forms that bind us to ourselves and one another and, in doing so, grant us the freedom to be ourselves together:

The work of poetic form is coherence, joining things that need to be joined, as marriage joins them… Forms join, and this is why forms tend to be analogues of each other and to resonate with each other. Forms join the diverse things that they contain; they join their contents to their context; they join us to themselves; they join us to each other; they join writers and readers; they join the generations together, the young and the old, the living and the dead. Thus, for a couple, marriage is an entrance into a timeless community. So, for poet (or a reader), is the mastery of poetic form. Joining the form, we join all that the form has joined.

Standing by Words: Essays is a sublime read in its totality, featuring Berry’s meditations on land and community, the power of the unspecialized mind, what personhood means, and more.

For a wholly different but no less illuminating take on form, see the psychology of the perfect daily routine; for a wholly different but no less heartening take on marriage, see Darwin’s endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

Published November 18, 2014




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