blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


Levis Remembered
David Baker
Matt Donovan
Tomaž Šalamun
Carol Houck Smith
Charles Wright

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audio version


A Reading by David Baker
recorded November 28, 2007

Stephen Kovach: Hello, welcome and thank you all for coming tonight. It’s a pleasure to be introducing to you David Baker, whose love for poetry and his dedication to it has branched itself in so many directions: he’s not only the author of eight books of poems, he’s also written, edited, and co-edited three collections of critical essays, he’s the poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, and is also a Professor of English at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio.

It’s easy, when you’re asked the question, “What poets have influenced you?” to rattle off a few names without thinking about it very much. But most of us, I think, would have to pause if asked, “What single poet has influenced you most?” But I don’t have to pause ‘cause for me—actually—there’s very little question. And it’s funny because while it was always clear to me that the year and a half that I studied under David Baker that helped me become a better writer, but it wasn’t actually until last spring, when I revisited his work, that actually floored me, how profoundly his aesthetics have shaped not only what aspire in my own writing but also what I value in the writing of others.  

In his introduction to Radiant Lyre, he quotes Yates as saying, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” And I think that it’s this, not querulous, but restless interrogation: of how to perceive the world and how to respond to it emotionally that I find myself continued to be influenced by his work and why I’ll always continue to return to it.  

To me this lyrical cross-examination is sort of typified poem, “Monarchs Landing and Flying,” it opens his latest collection. The twenty-four lines that begin this poem direct our attention to this young couple who are “looking nowhere but each other’s eyes, and then to the fluttering monarchs, and then back to the couple, but something’s happened; they’re no longer looking at each other, the woman is weeping and the man—his emotional response is unclear. They leave in a taxi cab. David Baker begins that twenty-fourth line with the poem with the phrase “nothing’s stirring in the garden.” Which would be so cynical if it ended there. But the line continues, “nothing’s stirring in the garden, not us.” And suddenly, we realize that the narrator observing this scene, while perhaps saddened by what he’s observed, is also being comforted in the company of someone he values. 

In an earlier poem titled, “The Anniversary of Silence,” he writes once there was “beauty even in the wreckage / men made of the world.” And it’s that interrogation of beauty, that relentless questioning of it, that instead of diminishing it actually makes the beauty he sees in the world more resonant in his poetry. He also writes in the introduction to the Radiant Lyre, that “poetry is itself a kind of persuasion.” And I actually think that’s more truth than what Yates said.  Poetry can quarrel with others, it can take a stance.  And it certainly changed the mind of an arrogant, cynical angry young twenty-year-old and persuaded him that no, actually there is beauty in this wreckage. It’s a tremendous honor tonight to introduce to you David Baker. 

David Baker: One gets very fond of ones’ students. Even years later, the first thing I thought when Steve began to talk was, “voices.” He hasn’t been getting enough sleep. His voice is raspy, he stayed up too late last night, he needs a Ludens, but I don’t have any cough drops or anything. But you worry about them.

So I got to Ron Smith’s school today and meeting these wonderful young men at St. Christopher’s School, and I looked out at the teachers and there’s another one of my students that has been teaching there for twenty years, Mr. Burke.

[“Come Home,” David Baker, The New England Review.]

That one happened. We have this big cat in the back woods.

So, this is the poem Steve was talking about, I think I’ll read this one. “Monarch’s Landing and Flying,”  just a simple little love poem.

[“Monarch’s Landing and Flying,” David Baker, Midwest Eclogue, W. W. Norton 2005.]

Another love poem I think. Why? So I read this one today at St. Christopher’s School because it has the word “testicles” in it, and there was all these boys, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen,“can you say that in a poem?” It also has the word shit. I thought they were just gonna die. And it was a poetry reading, they thought “oh my god it’s a poetry reading and he says shit.” They’ve gone to heaven. It was the coolest thing. What smart boys those were, wow. I seem to be reading, I think, animal poems tonight as well as love poems, or love poems that are also animal poems—which this one is.

[“Bay,” David Baker, forthcoming in The Paris Review.]

[“Never-ending Birds,” David Baker, The New Yorker, 2007.]

[“The Feast,” David Baker, forthcoming in The Boston Review.]

These are almost all new poems. I’m reading maybe a poem or two from books, but the rest of these are all, I don’t know, new, unfinished. Keats shows up in this one. This is a poem called “Posthumous Man.” You know that letter that he wrote near the end of his life—when he was describing his own life he said, “I seem to have been living a posthumous existence”—been diagnosed with tuberculosis for a few years, he was trained as a kind of doctor himself. He knew he was a goner and he was writing from that place, already gone, already dead, wow. Pieces of his letters show up a little bit later in this poem.

[“Posthumous Man,” David Baker, The Southern Review, 2007.]

Another bird poem. I’m reading this poem because it’s five o’clock in the morning this morning and I’m out on the highway driving from my little village in rural Ohio to the Columbus Airport—I can barely see. I haven’t had coffee, I hadn’t taken a shower, it’s ridiculously early, I’m driving my truck and this huge vehicle passes me going seven billion miles an hour: a Hummer. You know those? Oh my god, this thing just blew me off the road. This is a poem called “Hummer.” My friend, who used to teach here, Terry Hummer, thinks this is about him. In fact, I wanted to think of every use of that word I could think of in this poem but that. It’s just about the little birds. Do you ever watch them? I have birdfeeders—meanest little things you’ve ever seen in your life. Have you seen them? You ever seen more than one hummingbird at a feeder? [No.] You know why? Cause they—well just like the truck. That’s the point—now I don’t need to read the poem. I have another one.

[“Hummer,” by David Baker, Raritan.]

Here’s another bird one. There’s a lot of action in that one. Almost nothing happens in this one. The world will give you a poem if you just pay attention. This one is called “The Blue.” Keats showed up a minute ago, Dickinson shows up here a little bit.

[“The Blue,” by David Baker, Midwest Eclogue, W. W. Norton 2005.]

I think I will just read one more poem with my deep thanks for the invitation to read to you tonight and my thanks to you for coming tonight. When you could be—well just think of all the things you could be doing. And you’ve come to a little room to listen to poems. That’s an encouraging thing. I have sat in this room hundreds of times like you, rooms like this and listen to people read poems. It’s a pretty nice thing and I’m honored by your attention. Just one more little one.

[“Too Many,” David Baker, forthcoming in The Paris Review.]


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