Introduction to the 2006 Campbell Corner Poetry Reading

given by David Baker

I come tonight to speak in behalf of art. It has been my pleasure and honor to serve since its inception as one of the judges for the Campbell Corner poetry prize, and a delight to work with my very dear friends Phillis Levin and Elfie Raymond and, this year, Vijay Seshradi. It has been a wonder to be able to sift through gazillions of pages of poetry, and would-be poetry, and poetry look-alikes, to find so many examples of the real thing. Mr. Waldrep's and Culhane's and Barker's work is indeed the real thing.

I come to speak in behalf of art, because we have it in us to despise the art – the artist as well as the work and the act. We have it in us to be brutes. Barbarians. Monsters. We have it in us to steal, lie, torture, lay waste; and we have it in us to do these things, sometimes, intentionally and personally, in predation; and sometimes by proxy, by quiet complicity; sometimes by the mere omission of some other kind of behavior or action or protest or speech. You know very well what I mean.

Sometimes, though, we gather like this in a little room and speak quietly and with purpose, as we have sat in circles around protective fires and sung songs to each other. As we have stood on busy corners and woven tales. As we have sat in a quiet corner in a library – the library being one of the redemptive inventions of our species – and simply read the lines of a poet to ourselves. This is not unimportant behavior. This is urgent, and simple, and primordial, and fundamental to our survival. We gather like this in a little room and honor the art, the artist, and the work and working of art.

This is a form of action, of testimony, of support, and yes, of resistance. Resistance, you know, to those other things we have within us – brutality, greed, bone-rattling stupidity. To pick up a pen and sing, to open a book and listen, to stand before a painting and wonder, in awe – I think awe is one of the profoundest forms of thinking, of intellectual engagement, that we experience – to gather like this in a little room and speak quietly and with purpose – these are forms of voting in behalf of something central, and against something very powerful. These are forms of social engagement and hope, as well as forms of personal fulfillment, perhaps, personal hunger.

In my case, it is Brian Culhane's willingness to "lose my way in a meadow somewhere beyond today," as he writes in "Error," that convinces me of his authenticity and passionate bravery. Rummaging through his father's library, one speaker of Culhane's poetry, he rediscovers courage in an old line of Petrarch that seems to verify and validate our anxious journeys: "Little by little, experience wipes dry our tears."

Brian Barker, in a posture similar to Culhane's "losing his way in a meadow somewhere," locates one speaker where he "stood on the edge of some undefined space / Where trees, washed in adrenaline, / Ceased to be trees, and the single blue feather / That floated down in front of me, / Just out of reach, held the only light / I thought I'd ever need." Just out of reach, indeed. Art brings us to this edge of many kinds. It may be the grave and heightened edge of sublime elevation. It may be, as elsewhere in Barker's poem, the simple "edge of a driveway," where in his contemplation he sees the "wash of human history" and later "can hear the music that floods the night and blesses the boat."

Blessing is one of art's solaces. G. C. Waldrep shows us, though, that the blessing is, as they say, always mixed. His powerful sequence "The Batteries" is built of such mixture, tension, and frictive power. "Can you believe I once stood for war?" he asks, aghast, and then in parenthetical wonder, that wholly different intonation, "Can you believe I once stood against it?"

These poets speak of the self's perilous perch on the edge of art and brutality, on the edge between awe and erasure. And each in his way has the powerful capability to enlarge that self's experiences or visions into something like collective, or social, or yes, even political aptitude and testimony. Therefore, they show us, the radical interiority of art's blessing is, at the same time, potentially, practical, functional, and actionable.

So this is how I choose to vote. To gather like this, in a little room, and sing, and listen, and share, with purpose, and with awe, and sometimes with action. I come tonight simply to speak in behalf of the art. And to honor the artists, these three men, Mr. Waldrep, Mr. Barker, and Mr. Culhane. And to honor the audience, you, which is to honor the act.