The tone of David Baker’s poems is appealing. By which I mean beautiful, but also something more specific than that; they make a sound that’s believable, intelligent, humane, self-aware but not self-absorbed, mysterious, and stranger each time you hear it. After the bounty of Swift: New & Selected Poems, a title that evokes both speed and flight, in 2019, the poet has brought out Whale Fall, a book whose title poem tracks not only the decay of a dead whale, drifting downward through the ocean, but also the dying of our earth twined with the poet’s own experience of terrible sickness:
Weeks I couldn’t sleep. Years I couldn’t waken.
I found a note I’d written one ill night.
pines shredded ice snow
rips the night
I run my tongue above my tooth, aching.
And know it’s coming back once more. The warning
—right cuspid, gum swollen, puffed as a pea—
two days before the viral fire, the toxic sea …
The disjunctive texture is a sign of the kind of breaking down Baker is speaking about. Singing about, really—the music is so fine in these poems. Singing about the return of chronic suffering, relentless as weather. But the range of these poems is broad, as broad as any book of Baker’s so far, and his consistency—poems about life forms large and very very small—is matched by his restless curiosity. There are various stanzaic shapes in this new book, couplets that he calls “spikes,” couplets that he calls “hours,” and couplets that he calls “silos”—the rural Missouri of his childhood undergirds his imagination—and even a single elegiac couplet, a poem which makes a figure for the perfectly mixed tone—mixture that’s a new purity—which Baker achieves so often in his work. There’s rue in this poetry. Poetry that seems to come from some deep woundedness—or shame—in the poet’s being, and to draw on the sensibility of W. S. Merwin as much as it does Jack Gilbert, without any of Gilbert’s pomp:
The moon sets a place for him at the long table.
See how his plate shines among the glittering knives.
Baker’s father was a mapmaker, and in some ways the poet’s poems are maps—of a world, our world, and of a spirit trying to live in that world. There’s a poem called “Echolocation” that draws on the pandemic experience—“In our year of distances”—in which the poet weaves together songbird and loneliness and history, literary and political and natural. It doesn’t feel like collage, though it has the feel of many things happening at once. Which is to say the poet’s poems have a precision that reads as deeply interthreaded, not merely touching, but made into a tapestry of what is.
Flying upright, facing the world—
JESSE NATHAN: You sometimes write in syllabics. What does that allow you? Do you think of the syllable as the basic unit of poetry?
DAVID BAKER: Syllabics—making poetic lines by counting syllables—provides me several things in several stages. But let me say, mostly what I’m talking about here is descriptive and personal. I don’t intend to prescribe one method or another for anybody else.
For my practice as a poet, syllabic structure permits me three things. First, it’s a compositional method. It is how I generally start. That is, I find it alternately too easy and too hard to begin a poem. Sometimes I look at a page or screen, with some vague language in mind, and think, well, David, what in the world are you going to do now? How to begin? Sometimes I just leap in, writing, and it’s total goop.
I have learned that starting a poem for me is enabled a priori by counting syllables. It gives me an early shape, a way to start pressing my impulses and phrasal bits-and-pieces into an initial linear form. That form may evolve as I write and revise later, but at least I have a way to slingshot and shape nothing into something.
The second benefit of syllabics is rigor. Poetry is language under pressure. Linguistic and formal pressure can be a palpable measure of the interior pressure of the speaker’s imagination. I want a poem where I feel the risk, the at-stake-ness, the magnified attention on the occasions at hand. Structurally, too, a poem feels pressure from all four sides. The top presses down; the left margin presses in; the inevitability of the ending presses upward, intensified by poetry’s imperative for concision; and (this is poetry’s magical difference) the right side presses inward, too. The right side is created by one degree or several degrees of measurement. Poets don’t run all the way to the right margin but make decisions to stop, break a line, formalize the language with that further imperative intensity. As physical matter gets compressed, we know, the result is density, friction, and heat. So with poetic form.
The third benefit of syllabics, for me, is rhythmic variety. Syllabics doesn’t prescribe a rhythm, only a mathematic measurement. It’s cognitive, not audible. It is delightful to me to write, say, in a regular syllabic stanza, but also, meanwhile, to be varying the audible rhythm among those lines. No one gives a better lesson on this than Pope. Two of his decasyllabic lines in “Essay on Criticism” demonstrate the effect of heaviness:
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow . . .
You might hear as many as six or seven downbeats in that first line, as it huffs with its heavy, slow freight. Now, for the sake of the experiment, I’ll invent another decasyllabic line with only three or four beats. It is, in Pope’s terminology, clearly more swift and fleet: Happily, wonderfully, so merrily. All three of these lines have the same syllabic form, yet palpably different rhythmic forms. I find this doubleness of effect delicious, as it provides a further degree of irony and tension in a poem. The regularity of syllable and the variability of stress: counterpoint.
Who’s more masterful at this than Marianne Moore? Such rich, complex music to her poems, such visual delight. In fact, her syllabics are often quantitative rather than normative. I mean, where a normative syllabic has the same number of syllables in every line, a quantitative syllabic has the same number of syllables in corresponding lines in each stanza. “The Fish” is a famous example.
I don’t, though, as you ask, think the syllable is the basic unit of poetry. Well, it’s the basic rhythmic unit of a word or words, one pulse, the way a quarter note is the normative durational measure of music. But as a basic measurement of poetry, syllabics is not exclusive. Anglo-Saxon was accentual, not syllabic. Old French by comparison was more syllabic. Classical Greek and Latin were quantitative, like Japanese or Urdu, measuring lines by duration (relative quantities of time a syllable takes, long and short, rather than relative stresses among syllables).
I find these distinctions more pronounced as I compare oral traditions to print traditions. Old oral traditions were music-based, performative, and music is essentially quantitative—again, measuring the relative duration (not relative stress) and relative pitch of syllables. Once we printed poems, we could see and tabulate syllables. You can’t really hear syllabic lines, though Richard Wilbur claimed he could. Who could argue with Wilbur?
The music part is important to me. I was a musician—mainly guitar, on which I performed and taught, but banjo, bass, baritone horn, too—for more than ten years before I started writing poems. It’s this fundamental musical character that I value so much in poetry. A good poem should sing and dance, not just narrate, argue, or explain.
And I write in uncounted lines, too. Thirty-two pages of Whale Fall, out of the seventy-six pages with poetry on them, are syllabic in some manner or another. As I write, sometimes a poem that starts in syllabics ends up shaking off that form; sometimes the reverse. And—here’s a secret—often my poems that seem to be in free verse are actually in syllabics, taken apart. Whole sections of Whale Fall’s title poem are just this method:
In the second stage,
at 4,000 feet
a heavy thing in one world
floats like willow seed in a breeze
a moving vast through
that darkness, silent . . .
they don’t need
much else—oxygen, nor light—
the frilled shark
and fang-tooth, the spider crab,
the vampire squid, who strip the dead
now . . .
I like the jaggedness of the stanzas, the visible irregularity, and I really wanted the section to push downward, descending as the whale carcass sinks. But the first draft was in tidy decasyllabic lines. I pulled that apart and ended up with a kind of quantitative syllabic. If you rejoin every two lines, you’ll find ten syllables. Form inside form inside form inside form. Wait, that’s ten syllables…