In this hour on poetry in our time, the conversation starts with novelist Nicholson Baker:
Nicholson Baker bursts into our poetry series with a passion for form, a longing for four-beat rhythms a la Kipling and rhymes of the kind that Ira Gershwin and Dr. Seuss learned from Swinburne. For a couple of months now we’ve been puzzling: what’s it like to write serious verse in these times? Who does it, and why? Enter: Nick Baker, the brilliant mischief-making novelist of Vox and Fermata, the compendious historian in Human Smoke of 20th Century weapons of mass destruction, and also the Kindle commentator in The New Yorker. In a day-dreamy fictional monolog titled The Anthologist, Baker’s poetic hero Paul Chowder gives one man’s complete set of answers to questions we’ve asked in “whose words these are.” Poetry is about dense, juicy words that want to be read slowly, he says. Writing it is slow, too. The poetry game is competitive, anxious and downright scary, not because the words are blocked but because the poet is afraid he’s run out of them — or that he’s lost sight of the main goal, to make something memorably beautiful.
In our conversation Nick Baker reveals that he assembled The Anthologist by speaking his own clutter of thoughts (the silly, the sly, the grand) on poetry into a video recorder upstairs and down in his house in Maine — and some others sitting in a plastic chair next to the badminton court. This is a writer who can talk the afternoon away in the quirky, wise, erudite, fluidly funny high style that we know on the page as Nick Bakeresque.
In the second part of the show, we're with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Franz Wright:
Franz Wright grew up as an estranged son of a famous American poet. At 18, he’d read everything, found an addictive pleasure writing poetry (“like a first shot of heroin”), and learned “there was something wrong with me.” Nowadays he writes — in a sustained ten-year burst of celebrated work — with the goal of seeing the world through the eyes of suffering outsiders, in particular the severely mentally ill, and to use his own life as material — to mine his own suffering, as T. S. Eliot said of Beaudelaire, “for theoretical purposes.”
I think of Franz Wright as a man who’d have invented the Catholic Mass if it hadn’t presented itself to him: the daily ritual of the savior’s sacrifice, death, resurrection and our forgiveness. “The central symbol of the Eucharist,” he explains, “is a family or friends sitting down at a table to eat, raised to a cosmic level… It represents the last supper of Jesus with his friends… There’s nothing more moving in the world to me. I could not have made that up.” Franz Wright’s poems speak with that wonder and thanks, also with an often searing wit. His new collection is Wheeling Motel.