Powerful poems #1: Wendell Berry’s “Enemies”

When I talk about poetry with any student whose only exposure to this genre has been the torture of having to sit for exams, I sometimes start with this observation:

Poets don’t craft their poems so that they can torture you in an exam room; they write to convey something powerful, something that makes them want to create art that in turn creates in them a desire for escape from the confines of prose.

There is power in poetry, and I’m hoping to be able to talk about it in a new series of posts, just to see if I can get a few more people in the world to appreciate this form of literature.

I’ll start with Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” — please click and read it before continuing reading my post!

Quick instructions for reading a poem:

  • Read it aloud, don’t worry too much about unearthing meaning yet. Please don’t forget the title.
  • Check the dictionary for any word you want to think more deeply about, even if you think you understand the word already.
  • Read the poem again — preferably, aloud.

How much we need poetry like this in our age of polarisation. Poet Wendell Berry quite clearly knows this, hailing from a society that is particularly polarised — the US. In Singapore we are perhaps less split along political lines, but we are still prone to the habit of thinking that the people we disagree with are our enemies.

That one word title primes all of my protective faculties. Who are these enemies that the poet wants me to think about? (Grrr, my inner guard dog goes.) I consider those I think of as my enemies, and I am blindsided by the first line’s introduction of a hypothetical: “If you are not to become a monster”. Why should I be bothered with not becoming “a monster”? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with the monstrosity of my enemies? And why, if I am not to become a monster, must I “care what they think”?

The poetic voice points out that there is danger in caring about what my enemies think. “If you care what they think”, he asks, “how will you not hate them”? I’ll reveal a little about myself here: I almost unavoidably think of certain groups of people I find irredeemably selfish as my enemies because I view them as hampering and preventing the larger mass of humanity from progressing in several ways I find important.

I think of the people who support the structures in our world that worsen the problems associated with climate change and resource depletion. I think of our younger generations, who will be growing old in a world that we may not recognise. In 2021, the rich world is already suffering from the ravages of extreme weather. What will this look like in 2070? Or in 2100, when the babies born now will just be finishing their eighth decade of their lives?

I think about my enemies, and I consider what they must be thinking — perhaps they’re greedy, and they just want to generate profit at all costs, the future generations be damned. Maybe they’re an example of pure, unadulterated evil, and that they just want to watch the world burn. And then I catch myself, and I realise: I’m becoming “a monster / of the opposite kind”, just like the poem warns.

If I’m honest with myself, I am capable of harbouring the desire to destroy my enemies. I have become monstrous. “From where then / is love to come — love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?” Berry asks. The enjambment that leads from the second stanza into the third stanza is a little distracting, as if the text is screaming at me: Pay attention!! Don’t let your focus waver!! You’re capable of monstrosity!!

The text answers me: “From forgiveness.” But I can feel myself resisting the idea that my liberty lies in the forgiveness of those I think of as monsters. I could label that resistance as anger, bitterness, and indignation — and I realise that without the ability to drop those emotions, I remain a prisoner of those feelings that potentially have such a debilitating effect on our bodies.

Personally speaking, I need to be able to understand the motivations of someone I’m angry with in order to be able to move from anger to love. My enemies might, in fact, be suffering with insecurity in spite of the wealth and power so many of them already have. When I sit with that knowledge, I find myself able to find my own insecurity, and to identify how I sometimes have been far less than perfect because of my fears. I find myself less able to hate my enemies, and more able to love them, when I spend enough time with that knowledge.

I can feel, within myself, the freedom and liberty that our poetic voice presents to us when I manage to love my enemies (a freedom that is also rooted in my spirituality that includes the love for our enemies that Jesus called for). My enemies then become “as sunlight / on a green branch” to me – they have provided a pathway for me to experience the nourishment of what forgiving someone feels like.

But it is still important to register that what my enemies have done is, to me, wrong. To my judgement, their actions are destructive. Wendell Berry’s final words in “Enemies” warns me that I “must not / think of them again, except / as monsters like (myself), pitiable because unforgiving.” Perhaps my enemies have chosen their paths because they are unable to forgive. (Are they unable to forgive the universe for not being protective enough of the ones they love? Hmm.) If I allow myself to hold on to my indignation, my hate rises again, and I remember that I, too, am capable of monstrosity.

So I remind myself that despite their wrongdoings (that might be right and justifiable actions in a moral framework different from mine), it is possible to love and forgive my enemies. It is possible, perhaps, for me to avoid monstrosity myself.

I recently texted a friend that “the Big Sin of social justice movements is to fail to extend compassion to the oppressor”. I know that many people will resist this by ranting about how nobody bothers to extend compassion to the oppressed and marginalised. But hear me out — maybe we can do both, and maybe progress can be had if we made as much of an effort to understand the pains of the oppressors as we put in the effort to stand with the marginalised.

My sense of things is that those we think of as our oppressors are acting from positions of pain and trauma, even while they cause more pain and trauma. I read Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” as calling for us to end that cycle. I hold on to the hope that we can.

Did you enjoy this article? Did you manage to enjoy the poem? Let me know in the comments!

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/WhatsApp/Telegram 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always on my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/WhatsApp/Telegram +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always on my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

How do I start with preparing for the unseen poetry section?

Very occasionally I respond to posts on Reddit, and a few days ago someone asked for notes on unseen poetry. My response:

I’ve found Edward Hirsch’s writing helpful in helping my students think about poetry more deeply – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

For unseen poetry, the band descriptors say that the best answers show a “Sensitive and informed personal response showing close engagement with the text”. Ask your teachers if the use of the personal voice (“I feel”, “it strikes me”, “I have an impression that”, etc) is encouraged, and how you can express that in your literature essays (I’ve found that there sometimes are teachers that will discourage this, so please check your school’s style).

Hirsch’s writing resembles the kind of writing we’d LOVE to see in an essay, especially since he does that “personal response” thing very powerfully (but he’s a GREAT writer, so don’t be concerned about sounding like him, develop your own style).

As always, check the dictionary to ensure that you KNOW the meaning of the words in any text. (I’ve found the Merriam-Webster dictionary most helpful for digging out meanings that aren’t listed in the Lexico or Cambridge dictionaries.)

At the B4/C5 level you probably have some difficulty with understanding the literal meanings of some of the poems, so really try to work at that.

Poetry Foundation also has an app that allows you to spin for random poems, and some of my students have found that helpful too. (Spin till you get one you like, lol.)

Hope this helps!

I want to say more about Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, because it saved my academic life when I was in NUS. If not for it, I probably would have done quite badly, and that’s putting it mildly.

When I entered university fresh from the army, it was already already seven years since I’d last read a poem. That was in my Sec 2 literature class, when my school (a boys’ school famous for students unable to speak Chinese properly) kept on telling those of us who wanted to take literature at the O-levels that “boys generally aren’t very good at literature”. (Ha! Look at me now!)

So, as a 21-year-old entering academia again after 2.5 years in the army, I didn’t dream that I would be able to major in literature, and I definitely couldn’t see a future where I could compete with students who’d been taking literature at the O-levels and the A-levels. I thought I was going to major in psychology. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the entry-level psychology module was mind-numbingly boring, but the entry-level literature module was pure FUN from day 1.

But what could I do, when I was writing essays on poetry, and I was graded on the same scale as the O- and A-level literature kids?

Enter Edward Hirsch’s amazing book. I devoured it, finishing it in about a week (it’s a long one). It saved my life when it came to discussing poetry with the other A-for-A-level-literature kids.

I don’t know if Hirsch expected a young undergraduate to end up falling in love with poetry through his brilliantly written book, when that undergraduate picked up the book out of a desire to get an A for his university assignments and exams. It’s weird how other people’s writing can impact us like that.

I am filled with gratitude that the world carries such treasures such as these!

I tell that story on this website because I want to convey to the students desperate for unseen poetry notes that learning about poetry and how to write about poetry is a process that needs a deep commitment. If you sit down for hours each day to study for a single science paper, you should be doing the same for literature as well.

There is no shortcut.

But I want to reassure you that if you put in the effort to think about poetry and reading more deeply, it will eventually become rewarding and fulfilling to the point where you will never want to give up the habit. And it’s a good habit too.

Hope this helps!

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/WhatsApp/Telegram 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always on my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/WhatsApp/Telegram +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always on my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.