The Poem Remembers: A Conversation with David Baker

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By the time we sat down to talk—via Skype, with David in his office at Denison University and me at home in Durham, NC—David Baker had already given several interviews about Swift: New & Selected Poems, so we decided to take a slightly different approach, focusing on a few of the new poems and then looking through those the larger body of work collected there. (But not too large: it’s a generously slender book.)

The longtime poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, the editor and author of numerous books of criticism, and a poet in whose work rigor, vitality, and imagination are forever entailing each other (as well as being, I should note, a wonderful mentor), David is also a great talker, able to move comfortably through multiple fields, much as he does in the poems themselves. Beginning from a small handful of poems, we were able to touch on everything from physicists’ understanding of centrality to the significance of the book’s title to the inherent irony of the pastoral tradition that he has inherited and revised over the course of ten books of poems.

Here is that conversation.

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The Rumpus: I wanted to start with the first of the “Why Not Say” poems. In Lowell’s “Epilogue,” the question that you use as both title and opening phrase—”why not say what happened?”—is a kind of volta. It’s preceded by “yet,” and it turns away from a desire to write something fictional. It seems to me that your poem is in tension with some other, unnamed reasons you might not say or one might not say what happened.

That’s the starting point—although the phrase comes back up about midway through the poem in part, or at least an echo of it. I wanted to see if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about the things that might argue against saying what happened.

David Baker: It’s a great question. The first response I’m going to give is footnote already: you know, I’m the last person to ask about any of this. I’m done with it in a way, so it’s not mine to—

Rumpus: Nonetheless.

Baker: Nonetheless we do. My second footnote is then, because I wrote this poem in 2015 or 2014, I forget. Unlike many of my poems, in this one I had a fidelity to the actuality of events that I sometimes don’t. This was about my father; my dad was very ill. I’ve written about him all along, though not a lot. Just every now and then he shows up. He showed up in my first book in several poems. None of the poems from that book are in this one.

My father was not a verbal man. He didn’t have language. But he valued saying things that were true. He didn’t finish high school, had to drop out because his father died, and he had to go to work at sixteen. Then he lied about his age and got into the Coast Guard, after working in a bakery a little while.

He valued actuality. He later became a numbers person. He was a surveyor, a map maker. And it was really important for him to make maps that were extremely notationally accurate to the contours of the land, as we walked them. He taught me how to survey. So I think that was there. I had gone back to Missouri and I was staying with my brother and his wife. Dad was in the hospital, he’d had a stroke—no, he had fallen in this one. He had fallen and broken his hip. Which, if you’re in your mid-eighties, is sometimes something you don’t recover from. We didn’t know if he was going to recover. This poem remembers early mornings going back and forth from my brother’s house to the hospital. And all the things that were going through my mind, what I was seeing, what I was reading. I was reading Linda Gregerson, who pops up in this poem. And I was reading Lowell again. And that poem, of Lowell’s, is where the phrase comes from.

I wrote a poem—it’s in my first book—about my grandmother, and I made up a whole bunch of it. My dad taught me how to ice skate, in rural Missouri when I was a little boy. But in the poem it’s my grandmother as we skate on a country pond. I wrote the poem, somebody read it at her funeral, and I remember my dad—this would have been 1980, early ‘80s—I remember him saying, that didn’t happen like that, did it? How does that work? He never ready my books. Or he didn’t tell me that he did. Mom did. Oh, he probably did. But he was curious that it seemed to be permissible to tell a story about someone dear to me and adjust the facts, we could say. It always bothered him. So that was in my mind, too. I wanted to get something about this one right as a way to be—I was gonna say obedient, but faithful to him, of his way of storytelling. Something like that.

Rumpus: It seems important, in talking about accuracy, that you leave in the poem so many moments of revision. So many of the sentences in this poem start with “no,” rejecting what’s been said but not removing it from the poem. I’d be curious to hear you talk about the significance of leaving in statements that the poem claims are inaccurate.

Baker: I’ve been interested all my writing life in polyphonic music and polyphonic poems, what may even appear to be a single voice. I don’t know what voice is. I don’t even know what a self is. I have a lot of doubt about the independence of any of those things. And sometimes I have let myself be more adventurous about how to display that in a poem, and sometimes not. This poem is so private. I’m driving out in the middle of nowhere; over and over one converses with oneself. There is also in this poem a conversation that’s about correction. It might be my father’s corrective voice, it might be my own, and it might be an aesthetic correction: “Oh, let’s not do this, let’s do that instead.”

There’s some combination of a parental obedience and correction, as well as an aesthetic one. I like the imprint of the process as much as I like the final thing sometimes, at least the shadow of the imprint of the process. I don’t have enough post-modernist in me to like them always, the entire unfinished things. But I like the reminder of plurality and self argument.

Rumpus: Not just in this poem, and not just in the new poems, but in poems you’ve been writing for a while, that polyphonic quality also becomes a source of bounty. I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about the different modes of understanding. Because I don’t think it’s just “different voices;” it’s different ways of understanding the world. Whether that’s traditions, literary traditions, musical traditions. It can be scientific knowledge, it can be intimate, subjective experience. So I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about the impulse to have all of these things living together in poems.

Baker: Sometimes I like that, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I try to write very small, very pure—sometimes I just want to play one note, from beginning to end, and just make it gorgeous. And sometimes I want the whole band there. The polyphonic thing, this goes all the way back to music for me. I would like to know how to play a lot of instruments. I would like to write poems sometimes where it sounds as though there are several instruments. You can’t do that all at once. Only Susan Howe can do that on the page. Ha! But the poem remembers other idioms, other forms of intonation, other tones, other people’s language, their specific kind of language. The language of etymology or entomology or biology or mathematics. I’ve even used mathematical formulas in two or three poems, which as soon as it dawned on me, I thought, “duh.” Mathematics is this remarkably exact elegant language, so why not?

Now that also can look showoffish or imposing or standoffish, and I have to be careful about that. But I’ve used musical notation in poems. I think of poetry and mathematics and music as kind of the three greatest languages we’ve ever developed. Why not try to use those?

I have some very kind of idiomatically coherent poems, where the form’s very locked down. And I have others that aren’t at all. I’ve done a couple of readings where I’ve performed “Stolen Sonnet” with a musician. There are little pieces of song embedded in that whole poem, and he played pieces of the song. And I have done other readings of that poem where I’ve had as many as three or four people reading parts.

One of the things I do to push back against that moment where polyphonic could become cacophony is to introduce some kind of measurement. “Stolen Sonnet,” when you reassemble the lines, is fourteen ten-syllable lines. So I like that left side/right side pressure on something that could otherwise just fly apart.

Rumpus: I’d like to talk a bit about speed. The book’s title is Swift, which also seems to be one of the trajectories of the larger collection: a movement towards greater speed. It seems that as the poems become more available to more ways of knowing and more kinds of language they also tend to move faster. You’re someone who is very much invested in a pastoral tradition, even though you’re not taking it up whole cloth. Traditionally, we think of that tradition as being against speed, against hurry. Can you talk a little bit about the investment in swiftness here and in other recent books?

Baker: In an early draft of a poem, I was thinking about whether I want the energy of the poem or the velocity of the poem to be vertical, for it to move more across the page or with more compulsion downward. “Why Not Say” moves left to right across the page with more speed than it does down the page. With those longer lines, I was interested in shorter phrases, and in seeing a poem with long lines and little phrases disrupting the movement across the page.

The one we just talked about, “Stolen Sonnet,” moves down the page with some speed. With those little five syllable lines, the movement down the page is pretty intense. So the poem is in sections with those asterisks to delay the movement just a bit. There are all kinds of versions of delay in that poem. Dashes, caesuras, italics, all these little flashes and impositions that one could include in the poem to delay the speed.

See, the problem with speed, with swiftness, is the end is The End. And the title probably refers to the velocity of our life as much as it does to anything else. That’s one of the reasons I wanted this book to go backward. When I figured out that I didn’t want any poems from my first book, I knew immediately which poem I wanted to have finish the book, and it’s “Haunts,” where the guy’s sitting out on the mountain looking across at his life. I wanted the whole movement of the book to be that. And not to really end. Because it is so fast.

As I worked on the book, it got shorter and shorter and shorter. It has poems from maybe eight books but it’s not a very big book.

Rumpus: Since we’re talking about brevity, let’s shift back to the very first poem in the book: “Pastoral.” The word “center” shows up twice in the poem’s first two lines, which seemed slightly ironic. The poem puts the speaker in the center of the field and the center of the universe, but at the same time it imagines a universe that’s so vast that it’s almost pointless to be at the center; there is no real center. The poem imagines the self as inevitably central, but that bumps up against the vastness of the university and experience, so that being central is almost what causes one to feel overwhelmed.

Baker: That may be right. Everything in the universe is the center of the universe. We know that from physics. Every point in the physical universe is the center of the universe out from which everything else expands in an equal proportion. So the Sun is the center and the Earth is the center and a planet a bazillion light years away is also the center of the universe as far as we can measure mathematically. Everything is the center.

I wanted this poem to be just riddled with absences and gaps and hesitations and pauses and emptiness. And I played a little trick on myself as I wrote this one, a trick I play a lot in my poems. I wrote a whole book, After the Reunion, more or less with this trick, which is to not decide whether what I was writing was a love poem or an elegy. Is the person dead? To remember holding hands with her in the “last minute” sounds like it. Or is the person an absent or a lost erotic partner? Both, I guess.

That goes back to the sublime: terror and awe together. The two of which, even in Longinus, are the necessary ingredients of the sublime—and they happen in that particular chronological order. So to your question, absolutely. Everything is a center. Though the first-person pronoun only appears in that poem, once and far off to the right side, not at the center.

Rumpus: I want to ask an absurdly large question. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about nature, what for you are the implications of pastoral tradition at a time when our understanding of nature has to, if we’re going to survive, change pretty radically?

Baker: Yeah, has to change very radically. I don’t know. Even in the earliest pastoral poems, the people reading and enjoying the pastorals weren’t the shepherds. They were the scholars in Alexandria at the library who were reading pastorals with a heavy dose of irony. In the original pastorals there’s no audible irony at all; those are very sincere poems. But the audience would be reading with a great deal of irony because none of them were shepherds. They had in their lives considerably more ease and luxury than the people about whom the poems seem to be written or sung. That irony always abides, and I’ve tried to maintain that irony.

Though I think I’ve always been something like a nature poet, what that means to me has changed pretty radically in the last twenty years with a growing awareness of calamity. John Shoptaw had a great short essay in Poetry about two or three years ago, where he describes three stages or three kinds of poems about the natural world. The simplest he just calls nature poems, poems that are descriptive, like idylls. The second he calls environmental poems, poems with more deliberate awareness of not just nature as a passive thing that entertains us and provides for us, but something which is environmentally our home and of which we know we are inseparable part.

And the third is what he calls the ecopoem. That’s the poem more vigorously in advocacy of a kind of activism or political stance regarding the human being in nature, in the Anthropocene.

The essay is just a few pages long and it’s fantastic. I use it all the time now to ask, when we are talking about nature poetry, what are we talking about? I find my own poems having moved along that spectrum, too, toward more deliberation. Toward a kind of activism. Naming names. “Scavenger Loop“ does that. A couple of other poems in Swift do that. Quite a number of my newest poems do that.

Rumpus: Before we finish, I want to touch on the poem “Tree Frogs,” which ends “Such little things we are, and so much noise.” There’s a very conscious irony there: you’re talking about the tree frogs singing, of course, in the midst of your own song, your own act of making noise. And there seems to me to be something salient about that in terms of what you’re up to in a lot of these poems. I wanted to hear more just about the act of making noise, making music.

Baker: I fussed about the ending of that poem for a long time. It ends almost too much like a bumper sticker. “Such little things,” it ends with such a thematic harrumph. I might not have written that line, or I might not have let that line stand twenty years ago. I want sometimes to be able to be more declarative the way that ending is. To let it go ahead and be summarizing of the patterns of image and patterns of presence in that poem. I let it do that.

I’ve let myself only include one long poem, although I’ve written quite a number of long poems. One of the very first long poems I wrote was one called “Sweet Home, Saturday Night,” the title poem of my third book. That’s a noisy poem. It’s about being in a rock and roll band, late at night, on a stage in a little bar with all the instruments playing and everybody hooting and hollering to this horrible Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The poem makes a lot of noise; it crosses over itself.

It’s one of the poems where I really, one of the first times I really let language crisscross. Voices on top of other voices, borrowed voices. There’s a little Toni Morrison and a little Kundera and a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd in that poem. To let it get cacophonous and pull that back out and let it get cacophonous and pull it back out. I don’t think a poem’s job—or a poet’s job over the course of a lot of poems—is to edit the world out and leave only something singular or simple or pure. The question is how much noise to make.

Rumpus: So this is kind of a stupid question but I think maybe it’s one worth answering—

Baker: I’m the right guy.

Rumpus: What’s the value in going on and adding more noise? And making more human noise amidst all of this? In making more things?

Baker: The value is inclusion. The value is in valuing everything that there is. And doing that sort of equally. One of the poets I’ve been reading again, I just love his work, is Arthur Sze, who writes a poem unlike anybody else I know, or has an effect unlike anybody else I know. Arthur’s poems are often in sort of one-line or phrasal episodes. Or there might be one or two-line episodes making no transition from one to the next and stacked. He may have a line about nuclear waste and then a line about a bird and then a line about a childhood memory. And the thing that’s remarkable is he makes no judgments. He doesn’t presume or want to make the argument that any one of those things has any more gravity or is any more beautiful or has any more or any less right to be there more than anything else. It’s the most equalizing—I’m hesitating the use the word “democratic,” but something like that.

So the point in including is exactly that, is being inclusive, trying to make an art over the course of many years or a life that is more embracive and welcoming than not. The danger is making too much noise or simply yelling or not doing that with an artful priority.

Noise is noise, and the chaos and reality of noise is a powerful source on which to draw for poetry. But a poet then applies poetry’s many resources to that source: line (or not-line), stanza, image, narrative, point/s of view, even if those tactics are themselves shredded or partial or fluid. Mere noise is mere noise, but poetry can capture that power while still being, in ways old and new, poetry. It’s a worthy part of our art, or else we’re just making flowery, pretty wallpaper all the time.

Pretty is merely pretty. But beauty can be breathtaking, even terrifying. It’s important to remember, again, that terror is a central element of the sublime. And it’s important for a poet, over the course of many years, to reach for all manner of artful beauty and not merely bang, or caress, or cajole the same note endlessly.

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Photograph of David Baker by Katherine Baker.


Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC. More from this author →