Playing with a net: ‘Formal Salutations’
When I was teaching homeschool students in AP Literature, I would on occasion ask them to write a sonnet. The first time I did so, I promised to write a sonnet with them. The writing of that sonnet hooked me, and I eventually composed around 30 such poems. Below is one of them, “To My Errant Cousins.” Robert Frost, who famously said that free verse is like playing tennis without a net, provided my inspiration.
Most poets now eschew — how that chew fits! —
The waltz and formal sway of metered lines;
Their neoteric noses twitch at rhyme;
Their guts are churned when brushed by lyric tits.
Sestinas, sonnets, villanelles galore
Beget from modern pens frenetic raves;
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Brings shrieks of pain — O pentametric gore!
By blight, by blast, by slug and cankered mold
The ancient gardens, lily, lilac, rose,
The measured bed, the beaten path, the flow —
Were all laid waste as false (or too damned old).
A plague on modernists whom no one reads —
On all who made this garden rank with weeds.
In this review I wish to dedicate this sonnet to William Baer, Guggenheim fellow, playwright and novelist, translator and academic, founding editor of The Formalist, founder of the St. Robert Southwell Institute, which teaches and encourages young writers of fiction, poems, and plays, fellow Catholic, and poet.
In Baer’s Formal Salutations: New & Selected Poems (Measure Press, 2019, 184 pages), readers receive a basket of gifts, verse from Baer’s previous books and poetry appear for the first time. Here are sonnets and ballads, blank verse and villanelle, couplets, anapests, and quatrains. Here we find love sonnets, a psalter in verse, several parodies (which if you are acquainted with modern verse are hilarious), and lessons in history, biography, and culture. Here is the delightful and hilarious “New Jersey Noir,” a hard-boiled detective story in verse celebrating the novels of Ross Macdonald.
Most importantly, here is a poet who with rhythm, rhyme, humor, wit, and insight can entertain and educate an audience. Allow me to introduce you to just a few of these fine poems.
In “Conspiracy,” Baer gives us a sonnet reflecting the paranoia and mistrust well and alive in our time:
You know the truth about the suicide
of the emissary’s wife, the cocaine bust
in Venice and the plagues at Passiontide.
But whom can you tell? Whom can you really trust?
Desperate, you fly to Washington, D.C.,
to your ex-lover. “Meet me anywhere.”
“Of course,” she says. “Let’s meet at the N.S.C.”
Later, walking from McPherson Square,
you start to tell her on the Mall, but “No,”
she puts a finger to your lips. “Don’t say
a word. Please. I really don’t want to know.”
Instead, she kisses your mouth: you pull away.
You check your watch. It’s two a.m.
There’s not much time. Your love is one of them.
In “The Red-Haired Poet,” Baer parodies William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem whose vague meaning and high place on the modernist ladder of honors confused most of my students. The original reads:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Baer humorously transforms these lines into a shot at both the poem and modernism with this imitation:
so much depends
smashing the metro-
amid the literary
Many of the poems in Formal Salutations have to do with chances missed, good intentions gone awry, or actions misinterpreted. In “Cage,” a husband and wife, in attempting to create a perfect marriage, instead build bars around themselves until “The whole house pulsates with her frustrated rage.” “Bookstore” tells of a woman who looks in the index of a celebrity’s best-selling memoir to see if he remembers their long-ago love for each other. When she finds no mention of her name, she leaves the bookshop and drives away, unaware that the author has given her the pseudonym “Marie” and has written that she “was his ‘only, ever, perfect love’/whom he was ‘still and always’ thinking of.”
A number of Baer’s sonnets look at romantic love in its various guises, ranging from relationships that have fallen apart to the mystery and beauty of a marriage. In “Swimming Pool,” a man whom we first think a peeping tom watches as a woman “drops her robe to the ground” before entering her swimming pool unclothed. The unobserved man relishes the woman’s beauty, then follows her into the house “where his wife is waiting, still damp with the wet of the pool.” In “The Swimming Pool Float,” a man whose wife has died remembers her blowing up a yellow swimming pool float:
Tonight, holding the float, when the night is cool,
he moves her chair to exactly the same place,
opens the valve, and sits beside the pool,
then feels her breath rush gently over his face,
alone with loneliness, alone with death,
he inhales her last remaining breath.
Readers may also enjoy Baer’s translations of Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes work and his ruminations on the Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.
Once Americans read and knew their poets, from Whittier and Whitman to Frost and Sandburg. Though many today may still read the poets of the past, fewer people are familiar with our living poets.
This move away from reading contemporary poets likely occurred for two reasons. First, some of our modern poets are best known as songwriters, musicians like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Perhaps stronger reasons for this neglect are the obscure meanings and difficult form of some modern poetry. Like many academics who write for technical journals or modernist painters who deliver abstracts, a good number of poets today write solely for themselves or a limited audience rather than for a broader audience.
William Baer is an exception. Clear and lucent, his verse can be understood and enjoyed by any reader.
Formal Salutations will be available on March 1, 2019. Other titles by Baer may be ordered from your local bookstore or online.