Q & A: Charles Baxter

The speaker in this poem seems to want “To live from day to day without events//And to be free from the need to narrate them.” For a fiction writer like yourself, can poetry be an escape from narration? Is the escape successful?

My answer is a respectful “No” to both questions, but in saying so, I feel as if I’m strolling onto a battlefield where trench warfare has been going on for several decades and there’s evidence of mayhem everywhere. The problem of narrative linkage in poetry is at heart a matter of aesthetic ideology, and in order to answer your question I have to weigh in on it. Like many fiction writers, I began my writerly life as a poet, and what I sometimes miss in my own fiction is the high-velocity association of ideas and events and imagery that poetry makes possible. “Some Instances,” if it is about anything, is about expressions of pain or suffering and the problems (and purpose) of such expressions. In other words, I don’t want to escape from narration; as soon as the speaker of the poem says that he wants to be free of the need to narrate events, he begins to narrate them. What I want is a quick movement of thoughts in which the transitions are left out, and the poem can make its own case about a subject that is never explicitly named or stated. 


Classical music becomes a sort of soundtrack to both of these poems. Could you say more about Schumann’s “unplayable” concerto?

In Schumann’s Violin Concerto, the last movement is marked “Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell” (lively, but not fast), and if there’s anything that violinists want in the last movements of violin concerti, it’s something fast and flashy, which will open up the heavens and bring down the house. Schumann’s piece has a very odd final movement, a slowish polonaise, like someone dancing with lead weights in his shoes. Very few musicians have wanted to play it because it’s not showy, but the recording I have, by Gidon Kremer, has a performance in which it’s played at the marked metronome speed, which gives the music exactly the really weird feeling-tone that it deserves—like a birthday party seen underwater.


This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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