A Wonderful Contrariness! – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 16 – Part Two of Two – Canadian Poet Kate Cayley Reflects on Poems by Wendell Berry and Philip Larkin

American poet Wendell Berry


The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems 1957 – 1982, New Point Press, 1984

A poem I keep returning to, for guidance and for delight and to laugh in a way that feels satisfying, is Wendell Berry’s poem featured above. The Mad Farmer is one of Berry’s recurring narrators, a wild man who speaks the world. He’s a bit like Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, another stand-in for the poet who hilariously and profoundly meditates on what is and punctures holes in acceptable pieties.

In Wendell’s poem, the Mad Farmer offers a manifesto for the hopeless contrarians (I’m sometimes one of them). It’s a wonderful poem and I return to it again and again to remind myself not to fall in line and not to make not falling in line into a system in itself. The Mad Farmer resists because he can’t help it, but his resistance is not strategic and not smug. He resists systems of knowledge because there is, as he says, “a deep harmony thrumming in the mixture” that you can only hear when you go against the grain. But going against the grain is not a social club or a strategy. It’s a form of liveliness.

English poet Phillip Larkin. Photo credit: Fay Godwin 1970

And, here another poem, this one by UK poet Philip Larkin.

Church Going

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats and stone,
And little books: sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now: some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end: the small neat organ:
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how l. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverance,ong

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin from Philip Larkin – Collected Poems, The Marvell Press, 1988

I’m ambivalent about Larkin—he was such a bastard in so many ways, and his mood of fatalist nostalgia grates on me these days, his evocations of trains and fields, his almost total refusal of life, his multi-directional nastiness. It’s like he’s the smart mean kid in the corner congratulating himself on having escaped other people’s foolishness.

But I love Church Going and I can’t help loving it. It exactly describes the feeling of sitting in an empty church and wondering what it means (this is something I do whenever I get the chance). And it’s so exact with a last line that opens into the enormity of the past.


  1. Chris Bullock
    Posted June 28, 2023 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I don’t know why Kate Cayley is do upset by Larkin’s poems about trains and fields. A train poem—“the Whitson Weddings” — is one of his few “positive” poems. But I love her explorations of these poets of contrariness for its honesty and complexity. A very valuable discussion!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted June 28, 2023 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Hi Chris: Thanks for this. I do get that Larkin was not an easy guy. But he sure wrote “big” poems that keep feeling current! I would not have put Berry and larkin in the same place so Kate doing it was so helpful. ANd it worked. And thanlks to you for reading from the Recovering Words site!

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