Reading at the English Department, University of Exeter, 22nd November, 2016
I went to see the American poet David Baker reading in the English Department at the University of Exeter yesterday. On a dark and wet early evening, Baker was as uplifting in reading aloud so expressively – and physically with a bird-like movement of his arm and hand – as he was poignant in being compelled to express his despair at the election of Trump in America. Poetry and politics are inherently linked, but Baker did question with honest personal angst how poetry could possibly account for the artistic and intellectual [and much more] disruptions reflected by that election result.
Reassuring then to be warmly soothed by the lyrical depth of much that he read, as well as the scholarly and experimental intensity of his current writing, reading as he did from a poem in progress that weaves elements of John Clare’s life into its narrative. This included what I’ll call poetic redactions to represent the limits and/or obfuscations of language, these imitating the coded vowel-less words John Clare used when writing letters from High Beach, the asylum where he was kept. The following example is taken from a hand-out [how wonderful!] Baker distributed before reading this poem – I like that engagement with the audience: teacherly in such a communal way,
David Baker lives in Ohio, teaches widely as a Professor of English and Creative Writing, is the poetry editor of The Kenyon Review, and is most often referred to as a Midwestern poet who writes predominantly about the poetry of place. Last night’s reading included poems from his latest book Scavenger Loop which seemed to always involve birds, and thus my mentioning of his physical movement in reading – these were comforting to hear in their lyricism and the rhythmic way Baker reads and often recites.
The expressions of frustration and dismay about current political and social events in America were spontaneous and heartfelt. Baker claimed not to be a political poet, and I presume he really meant by regular inclination, but in the circumstances he did read a poem from his Treatise on Touch: Selected Poems which he said was twenty years old and about one of the ‘Bush boys’. This next poem is one I want to share as it does reflect, despite what he says, his powerful ‘political’ take on and portrayal of aspects of American life and society. It is titled Patriotics,
[From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2002 by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. All rights reserved]
His book Scavenger Loop has been out for a year in America and was released yesterday as a paperback here in the UK, a significant event in the life and popularity of a poetry book and its author. From what I read in some detail from lengthy extracts online, this is a complex work, incorporating many external resources experimentally and playfully into his own lyrical narratives.
I did not know about David Baker and his work before yesterday, but I am so glad I do now. I look forward to receiving and reading my copy of Scavenger Loop [how amazing that David was simply reading and sharing yesterday, and not promoting/selling his book] and will review this at a later date.