by Janet I. Martineau
Poet David Baker and his 2009 book “Never-Ending Birds” were announced today as the recipients of the 12th triennial Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize -- a $10,000 stipend awarded by the Saginaw Valley State University Board of Fellows.
It is a fitting selection for the prize named in honor of the Saginaw-born poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry capturing the natural world -- of the family greenhouses on Gratiot as well as mid-Michigan rivers and critters -- along with his childhood memories of Saginawians.
Wrote the Poetry Foundation of Baker, “He 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. And Baker himself has delineated the importance of landscape and place to his poetry.”
Adds poet David Wagoner, one of two judges who chose Baker as the winner of the Roethke Prize, “I think Theodore Roethke would have been especially pleased that the prize in his name is being given to David Baker because he believed that sound, rhythm and meaning were of nearly equal importance in the making of a poem, and (Baker’s) beautiful and skillfully made book ‘Never-Ending Birds’ clearly demonstrates he believes so too.”
Baker, who lives in Granville, Ohio, will receive the prize during a free public ceremony, starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall at SVSU. That event is part of a five-day Theodore Roethke Poetry & Arts Festival taking place not only at SVSU but at venues in Saginaw, Midland and Bay City.
A professor of English and the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing at Denison University, 56-year-old Baker has written 10 books of poetry and is the poetry editor of the Kenyon Review. His poems and essays also have appeared in more than 100 magazines, including American Poetry Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and the Yale Review, and countless anthologies.
Although born in Maine, Baker was raised in Missouri and has spent more than 40 years of his life in the Midwest -- including teaching for a year, in 1996, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Roethke received his bachelor and masters degrees..
In an online interview with Paul Holler, Baker said of his work, “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.”
Among his other poetry books are “Midwest Eclogue,” “The Truth About Small Towns” and “Sweet Home, Saturday Night.”
The Roethke Poetry Prize, which began in 1968, is unusual in that poets do not submit their works in hopes of winning it. Instead, the current U.S. poet laureate choses two or three published poets who then select a winner after reading poetry books published in the past three years.
Serving as a judge with Wagoner was Rosanna Warren, who praised the sensory nature of Baker’s work.
“He understands the human story as part of a larger story of life on earth, but he never forces the analogy,” she said. “His rhythms are as alive to the roll and tang of syllables on the tongue as they are to the recurrences and interruptions of the circulation of blood and sap. His poems respond deeply to life, and enlarge our imaginative responses to it.”
What is interesting is that both judges have links to Roethke and/or the prize.
Wagoner was a student of Roethke’s and wrote a play about his teacher, “First Class.” He did a reading of the play at Saginaw’s First Presbyterian Church, Roethke’s church, when he was here in 2009 as a guest of the Friends of Theodore Roethke.
Friends of Theodore Roethke own and operate Roethke’s boyhood home at 1805 Gratiot.
Wagoner also selected and arranged the book “Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63.”
And Warren is the daughter of Robert Penn Warren, a former U.S. poet laureate who won the Roethke Prize in 1971.
Roethke was born in 1908 and died in 1963, and in 1954 won the Pulitzer for “The Waking.” Although he was teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle at the time of his death, he is buried in Saginaw.
For the title poem of Baker’s winning book, log on to http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2007/06/04/070604po_poem_baker
To hear Baker reading his poetry, and an interview, log on to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gcCluuEfUg.
And for more information on the five-day Roethke Festival, log on to http://www.svsu.edu/roethke.