By Chance, Of Course

I enjoy this poem. It is a sweet little bit of invective. Berry may have faith in a creator God, who acts with a purpose or a plan, and that is not reflective of my own deepest sense, but I love his cranky reverence and his openness to being moved and broken by beauty. I appreciate his willingness to reside in a sort of ignorance (or, perhaps, in a second innocence, such as might arise out of the recognition of the limitations that reason encounters when trying to grasp and define the ineffable) without demanding that understanding arrive. And I like that though he recognizes this, he is fully engaged in the attempt to articulate and testify despite the final impossibility of tying it all up “with a ribbon”.

I suppose I feel that chance is one of the poetic elements that informs and enables the existence and emergence of the kosmos, but I would agree with Berry that the dry linearity of designating “chance” as the explanation-to-it-all results in a creation story that lacks dimension and seems to ignore or miss the holiness of the ordinary.

And anyway, what a rock-star way to close a poem!

Image from Bill Hubick Photography

From the February 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

By Wendell Berry. His essay “Faustian Economics” appeared in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine.


“Chance” is a poor word among
the mazes of causes and effects, the last
stand of these all-explainers who,
backed up to the first and final Why,
reply, “By chance, of course!” As if
that tied up ignorance with a ribbon.
In the beginning something by chance
existed that would bang and by chance
it banged, obedient to the by-chance
previously existing laws of existence
and banging, from which the rest proceeds
by logic of cause and effect also
previously existing by chance? Well,
when all that happened who was there?
Did the chance that made the bang then make
the Bomb, and there was no choice, no help?
Prove to me that chance did ever
make a sycamore tree, a yellow-
throated warbler nesting and singing
high up among the white limbs
and the golden leaf-light, and a man
to love the tree, the bird, the song
his life long, and by his love to save
them, so far, from all the machines.
By chance? Prove it, then, and I
by chance will kiss your ass.

2 thoughts on “By Chance, Of Course

  1. Thomas says:

    Lauren, I flinch with Berry against this notion that some blind arbitrariness built this universe. Among other things, that notion assumes that we could even know what arbitrariness is. Here’s some relevant food for thought: every idea we have of what is is limited. That which the idea leaves out—the greater part of infinity—itself operates in what is, and that operating will produce effects on “observables” the idea lifts as observable, imparting to them a random aspect unexplainable by the idea … chance itself! This view of chance forever precludes that we could ever know what chance is or whether chance (as lawlessness) actually even exists, because we will never have a knowledge that does not leave out something, and who knows what the left-out something is and the effects it is producing.

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