In his 1974 essay “The Specialization of Poetry” (anthologized in the collection Standing by Words), Wendell Berry describes how poetry has become “a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home”; this is in lieu of poems being “a point of clarification and connection between [poets] and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other” or “an adventure into any reality or mystery outside themselves.”
In the course of developing this theme, he quotes a line from Yeats that asserts a choice between “[p]erfection of the life, or of the work,” a dichotomy Berry sees as defining the modern state of affairs, which is the choice to make poetry itself life instead of life being the ground from which poetry grows. There should be no such dichotomy, no such choice, Berry insists: instead, “the tensions between life and work [. . .] would ideally be resolved in balance: enough of each. In practice, however, they probably can be resolved [. . .] only in tension, in a principled unwillingness to let go of either, or to sacrifice either to the other. But it is a necessary tension, the grief in it both inescapable and necessary. One would like, one longs in fact, to be perfect family man and a perfect workman. And one suffers from the inevitable conflicts. But whatever one does, one is not going to be perfect at either, and it is better to suffer the imperfection of both than to gamble the total failure of one against an illusory hope of perfection in the other. The real values of art and life are perhaps best defined and felt in the tension between them. The effort to perfect work rises out of, and communes with and in turn informs, the effort to perfect life, as Yeats himself knew and other poems of his testify.”
Words to learn to live by.