Baker is often described as a poet of place, indebted to the American Romantic tradition of Emerson and Whitman, as well as Frost. His poems typically explore an individual’s sense of and engagement with their natural surroundings, and embrace complicated notions of history, home and memory; Baker himself has delineated the importance of landscape and place to his poetry. In an on-line interview with Paul Holler he said: “I find a connection between my poetry and my place in the world. I am sure that my work would be different if I lived a long time somewhere else; of course it would, though I have no real way of estimating what that would be, how my poems would change. As it is, I can't see how I could write without a devout attention to place—the language, ways of life, my neighbors and family, the rigor and leisure that grow here where I live. Wallace Stevens wrote that ‘we live in the mind.’ But I would add to that, to assert that if we live in the mind, then the mind lives in the body, and the body lives in a particular time and place in the world, taking sustenance, loving, working, laboring in that time and place.”
Baker’s collections of poetry include the widely-acclaimed Changeable Thunder (2001), Midwest Eclogue (2007), Never-Ending Birds (2009), and Scavenger Loop (2015). Reviewing Midwest Eclogue for Verse magazine, Kevin Cantwell described the book’s “meditative pastorals and epistolary natural histories” that give the reader “not so much the uneasiness of living in the poem but a sense of the poem as timbre for the uneasiness of the poet’s mind. Baker’s poems trust that ordinary language can still leverage the liminal moment through a kinetic syntax and conversational force.” The poet Carol Muske-Dukes, calling Baker “a reliably illuminating presence in American poetry,” noted that the poems in Never-Ending Birds are “tightly controlled, but aching with loss.” Edward Byrne, writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, perhaps summarized Baker’s work best. Reviewing the collection Changeable Thunder, Byrne wrote: “Baker speaks to the importance of memory even when selective or ambiguous, the value of life and the language to describe or explain it, the need to know how to connect the past with the present, to blend memories with continuing events in a way that seems to keep all alive simultaneously in our minds, to mourn but also to learn from the past and the people who still reside there for us in order to direct the present wisely or to turn with optimism toward the future.”
In addition to his numerous volumes of poetry, Baker has published three works of literary criticism. Meter in English: A Critical Engagement (1996) is a compilation of essays by various poets responding to a Robert Wallace piece on prosody, while Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry (2000) contains Baker’s own critical essays on individual poets and poems. With his wife, the poet Anne Townsend, Baker compiled and edited the collection The Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2009). The book, which grew out of a panel discussion at the 2000 Associated Writers Program conference, considers the traditions, shapes, forms and rhetorical gestures of lyric in three main genres of poetry—the elegy, the ode and the love poem. Baker is also the author of the collection of essays Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (2014).
Baker told Contemporary Authors: "I have surprised myself, I suppose, by seeing how important poetry has become to my life. I first began writing in college, experimenting as students do with their current subject. I continue now out of something close to necessity. I want to continue to believe that a growing sensitivity toward language nurtures a growing sensitivity toward the user of language—the human being."
High-school English teacher in Jefferson City, MO, 1977-79; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, editor of Quarterly West, 1980-83; Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, visiting assistant professor of English, 1983-84; Denison University, Granville, OH, Professor of English and Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing, 1984—. Visiting instructor at Cornell University, 1985; visiting associate professor of English, University of Michigan, 1996; instructor in MFA program for writers, Warren Wilson College, 2000, 2001. Poetry editor, Kenyon Review, 1995—. Gives readings at universities.
- Looking Ahead (chapbook), Mid-America Press (Warrensburg, MO), 1975.
- Rivers in the Sea (chapbook), Mid-America Press (Warrensburg, MO), 1977.
- Laws of the Land, Ahsahta (Boise, ID), 1981.
- Summer Sleep (chapbook), Owl Creek Press (Seattle, WA), 1984.
- Haunts, Cleveland State University Poetry Center (Cleveland, OH), 1985.
- Sweet Home, Saturday Night, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1991.
- After the Reunion, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1994.
- The Truth about Small Towns, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1998.
- Changeable Thunder, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 2001.
- Midwest Eclogue, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.
- Treatise on Touch: Selected Poems, Arc Publications (Lanc, UK), 2007.
- Never-Ending Birds, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2009.
- (Editor) Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1996.
- Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 2000.
- (Editor) Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2007.
Work represented in anthologies, including Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry, Monitor Book, 1981, 1984, 1985; Missouri Poets Anthology, Mid-America Press (Warrensburg, MO), 1983; Jumping Pond: Poems and Stories from the Ozarks, 1983; The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985; Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, Harper (New York, NY), 1986; The Pushcart Prize, 1994; The New Breadloaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2001; and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, 2001. Also contributor to The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, Oxford Press (London, England), 2001; Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suarez and Ryan G. Van Cleave, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 2002; and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI). Contributor of more than two hundred poems, articles, and reviews to periodicals, including American Scholar, Kenyon Review, New England Review, North American Review, Poetry Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Atlantic Monthly, Georgia Review, Nation, New Yorker, Paris Review, Raritan, Yale Review, Western American Literature, and Montana Review. Kenyon Review, assistant editor, 1983-95, poetry editor, 1995—.
- American Studies International, June, 1997, Nancy Kuhl, review of Meter in English, p. 107.
- Antioch Review, fall, 1992, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 779.
- Choice, July-August, 1997, B. Almon, review of Meter in English, p. 1797.
- Georgia Review, fall, 1992, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 554.
- Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1998, review of The Truth about Small Towns, p. 928.
- Library Journal, January, 1997, David Kirby, review of Meter in English, p. 99.
- Poetry, July, 1992, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 226; January, 1996, Ben Downing, review of After the Reunion, p. 223; January 2003, Sally Connolly, review of Changeable Thunder.
- Prairie Schooner, summer, 1994, David Citino, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 151.
- Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1996, review of Meter in English, p. 68; June 29, 1998, review of The Truth about Small Towns, p. 55.
- Sewanee Review, winter, 1998, William Harmon, review of Meter in English, p. 116.
- Southern Humanities Review, spring, 1993, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 192.
- Southern Review, fall, 1995, review of After the Reunion, p. 957.
- Style, fall, 1997, Timothy Morris, review of Meter in English, p. 552.
- Valparaiso Poetry Review, 2002, Edward Byrne, To Articulate and to Remember the Past: The Poetry of David Baker.
- Village Voice, February 25, 1992, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 67.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1992, review of Sweet Home, Saturday Night, p. 30.
Poems By DAVID BAKER
More poems by David Baker (30 poems)
- Dust to Dust
- Holding Katherine
- Mongrel Heart
- Neighbors in October
- Old Man Throwing a Ball
- Peril Sonnet
- Pulp Fiction
- Red Shift
- Saints' Poppies
- Taxi After an Evening Shower
- The Affair
- The Extinction of the Dinosaurs
- The First Person
- The Rainbow
- The Spring Ephemerals
- The Supernatural: A Love Poem
- The Truth about Small Towns
- The Women
Articles By DAVID BAKER
- Walt Whitman: “Time to Come”
The young poet shows the first stirrings of genius.