“The History of Western Poetry,” one of the shortest poems in William Baer’s collection of new and selected works, encapsulates his tone and method. “Meter, of course, is classicist,” he begins, “Rhyme is Catholic-medieval; / Blank verse is lapsed and Anglicist; / Vers libre is French (and evil).” Baer’s poetry is skillful, measured, and often parodic. His narrators are sarcastic, and often biting. His work is a volley against contemporary free verse, and his best poems not simply playful and pointed, but contemplative and transcendent.
Baer founded the literary journal The Formalist in 1990, dedicated to metrical verse. The journal quickly established itself as an influential and impressive publication, releasing new work by James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Maxine Kumin, Dana Gioia, John Updike and other established writers. In a note for the magazine’s first issue, Baer said he hoped “to create a forum for formal poetry and to encourage a renewal of interest in traditional poetic craftsmanship.”
Such awareness of formal poetic tradition is one of Baer’s main thematic strands as a poet and editor; the other is his Catholic identity. Baer served as poetry editor for Crisis magazine, and while his Catholic sense was present in occasional pieces, his 2011 book Psalter: A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets illuminated his ideas of faith. Baer has said that his work “got more specifically Catholic as I got older.” Most of his work is not devotional—in fact, some of it is provocative—but his comment that “Catholic writers can do all sorts of things, as long as they consider whether it’s pleasing to God” is a point well-taken.
Baer has even identified a particularly religious element to his devotion to form over free verse. “There are laws that underpin everything,” he has said, “and I’ve always felt that formal poetry is a beautiful reflection of God’s universe.”
Devotional poetry runs the risk of becoming ornamentation for dogma, and in losing its sense of surprise and style, undermines the very dogma it hopes to illuminate. The opposite is true for Baer. His finest work is often his most religiously informed, while his other poems, although entertaining, feel less compelling.
The work included in this volume from his Psalter collection is worth the price of admission. He retells Biblical narratives with voice, verve, and a feeling of immediacy. His poems will send readers back to the original text, and then again back to his interpretations—a healthy interplay between inspirations. In “Snake,” a retelling of Genesis 3:5, he begins “Yes, you have a lovely garden here, / with flowers, fields and fruits, lakes and streams, / beneath a Tree of Life, with nothing to fear, / in a paradise of pleasure, a place of dreams.” The voice of temptation begins with compliment, and then moves to persuasion: “And yet, you lack a certain acuity, / a comprehension of all that lies within, / of good, of evil, of ambiguity, / of death, and of the leprosy of sin.” The poem’s final couplet works quite well: “Become as gods, transform to something new; / put hiss in your voice and fork your tongue in two.”
By framing these retellings as sonnets, Baer creates a regularity of rhythm and structure that keeps readers attuned. At the same time, the well-trod Biblical stories feel fresh and challenging. This grace—we can surely call it that—extends into his New Testament formulations. “Light of the World,” a consideration of John 8:12, is a beautiful, single-sentence sonnet. “Not as the candle luminates the room, / nor even as the sun illumes the day, / but as, into the blackness of the tomb, / into its feculence and foul decay, there lights, upon the lifeless eyes of those, / imprisoned there” the light of dogged hope. It is a light “leading, at last, through grace, through sacrifice, / into the luminescence of paradise.” Baer’s range of subject is as impressive as his ardent movements of belief.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.