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How To Be a Poet

Here’s a Wendell Berry poem called “How To Be A Poet.” But it’s not for poets only. It’s really about how to be a human being.

How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

“How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry by Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998 by Wendell Berry. Used with permission of the poet and Counterpoint Press.

This poem was originally read in the On Being episode “The Poetry of Creatures.”

I admit the irony that I’m posting on the screen — and you are reading on the screen — a poem that urges us to “stay away from screens.” But that just proves that being human is complicated! (Still, how about fasting from Facebook or email one or two days a week?)

I love the lines, “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

There are many ways to desecrate, with our words and our actions, the places in which we live our lives — “places” that range from our families, to our politics, to the natural world.

But here’s the good news: By being mindful of that fact, we can help reclaim the sacred possibilities of those places, one word at a time, one action at a time.

Listen to Wendell Berry read “How To Be A Poet (To Remind Myself)”:

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