Niagara Gazette — Bob Baxter sent me his new book of poems the other day and I promised to read them. But, when I tried to open the book, I couldn’t. I’ve always been prejudiced against poetry.
He knew of my dislike, but as a retired creative writing professor, had hoped the poems from “Niagara Lost and Found” might soften me toward one of his favorite art forms.
Sadly, my disdain was set in place long ago, in reaction to teachers who could not help me understand. It wasn’t just poems, it was classic literature. Reverence for the world’s most important words eluded me. Shakespeare was a punishment. That tale about two cities was just more unendurable homework.
Yet, I somehow became a writer, kind of like Bob Baxter, except my work is done while a clock counts down, while his work is crafted as if he were the maker of a fine tapestry, each thread deliberately placed and torn out unless it lays just so.
While he’s doing that, I can barely find the time to get two words together that sort of match, like a black sock and a grey one, between answering phones, and responding with as much presence as I can muster to callers and visitors and colleagues and students. Not to mention the pile of books on my desk other writers clamor for me to read, a pile that grows like a beanstalk, fertilized by the boom in self publishing. Many sadly unedited.
Baxter’s book was different. It had been produced by a real publisher who paid for the right to do so in an uncertain economy.
I did not want to ignore Bob’s poems. And not just because he’s a writer who has been called Niagara’s own Walt Whitman.
I know him as an environmental activist and I admire his passion to save us all, despite ourselves. It’s hard work, mostly because we won’t listen to him on matters such as ripping out the Robert Moses Parkway all the way to Lewiston to let Niagara’s nature stretch out into the community. He can get rather cranky and unbending when it comes to saving the Earth.
Because I really admire his passion for our world, I promised to try and read his poems. When I couldn’t do it, I emailed him and asked for help.
We met at a mutually favorite place - the Book Corner on Main Street - which, by the way, is a city treasure. Among the stacks on the second floor, in a building filled to the brim with words, Bob and I walked through his poetry.
I said, “Tell me your process, so I can try to understand.” He threw his head back and barked a laugh. Then he said, pointing to my notebook, “I’m laughing. Write that down.”
The experience took me back several years, when he and a couple others gave me a tour of a flat of land — at the edge of Artpark in the village of Lewiston — which he helped to reclaim as a preserve for Mother Nature. He never got much credit for that, except in the story I later wrote about the sudden appearance of long-gone plants and creatures, which the trio pointed out to me as we walked along, things I would have never seen without the help of those who’d studied nature for a long while.
“Why don’t you just write stories,” I asked him, my tone a little aggravated as if his poetry was a personal affront to my time. We sat on a couch in the Main Street store’s gigantic book-lined upper room. My question made him smile. Then frown.
He tugged a bit at his salt and pepper colored beard, his trademark of sorts, and thoughtfully described for me how poetry is far more emotional than stories ... and how just a few words can capsulate centuries. Many of his poems detail Niagara’s history, and special attention is paid to the daredevils. Others allow the shades to be pulled back on his own life story, inviting the reader into intimate settings to see where all our psyches converge.
As we made our way through his book, stopping here and there, I was surprised to learn two things. One is there are little stories within each poem. I suppose I’ve always known that. Like poems are just shorter for people who have no time. Some poems are just a few paragraphs. His longest poem, some 65 pages, is called ‘God’ and it examines questions about the meaning of life, woven through man’s centuries of carnage and terror. A history lesson inside a philosopher’s lecture on the silence of God, far reaching and up close at the same time, while noting simply that “all death is personal.” Reading that poem in its entirety the next morning, touched me to my soul.
But, the other surprise is that Baxter, as the poet E.R. Baxter, is more than deeply intense. Inside his poems, he is dire, ironic and sarcastic and droll. In many places, I laughed out loud at the humor I discovered. I’d share it with you, but the swatches I pulled don’t do justice out of context. So, let me borrow a few words from my poetry lesson when I asked him what one line meant and he said — now his turn to be a little affronted — that I should try to figure it out for myself. “You have to bring something to it,” he said firmly.
I walked away from my encounter with E.R. Baxter feeling a happy, enhanced awareness. I did not hate all poetry any more. I just wish I’d had the chance to sit with a poet or two when I was younger. Or, maybe I was just happy to have sat with a poet now, when I’m older. And feeling kind of lucky that I could wander through his words as he led the way.