Denison Professor Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship
Posted: May 17, 2000
For his college, it's a singular honor. For his students, it's an enrichment of instruction. And for Professor of English David Baker himself, the receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship is the chance to continue a very important internal conversation.
"I'm working on three books at the moment," says Baker, who received notice this spring of his selection for the prestigious fellowship. "What this gives me is essentially 15-16 months of time to write?and that's priceless."
College officials say Baker's award is the first Guggenheim won by a Denison faculty member in the 75-year history of the award, which is given annually to about 200 distinguished scientists, scholars and artists.
"The Guggenheim is one of the giants," says Associate Provost Keith Boone, noting that out of 2,900 applicants, only 182 winners were selected this year. "We think highly of any faculty member who can go through such a rigorous competition and come out with such an achievement," he says.
For Baker, a 16-year veteran of the Denison faculty, the Guggenheim tops a heap of awards for his poetry and critical work.
In 1999, his book "The Truth about Small Towns" received the Ohioana Book Award for poetry; in 1998, the Ohioana Library Association gave him a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the field of poetry.
In addition, the poetry editor of the world-class "Kenyon Review" has received praise for his book "Heresy and the Ideal," a collection of essays and criticisms about modern poetry, and has been given an Ohio Arts Council grant that will supplement his Guggenheim cash award.
All this for a man who says he's still learning about the processes of poetry.
"I've written long enough that it's become a part of my life," says Baker, who started writing poetry in college and has been teaching it all his adult life. "I'm always thinking about poetry; I read poetry before I go to bed. It's an obsession and a vocation."
What he strives for are words that ring with emotional truth and communicate something important about what he calls "the inner life of people."
"People don't read poetry for facts," he says. "They read it for beauty and art and the life of the soul. Poetry tells you how to live with conflict and with multiplicity."
Baker credits a renewed national interest in poetry to efforts by the United States' last two poet laureates and to people's appreciation of the truths they find in a poem's compactly written lines.
"We live in a speedy culture," he says. "The average frame speed on MTV is something like 1.4 seconds?and when you watch something like that, you can't fix on anything. Poetry is about impediments. Every tactic of a poem is to make you go slow; the line breaks, the complicated language?it wants you to savor and be in the text. As you go slower, you go deeper, and learn how to be inside the language. You live in another world for a while?a world that's inside this one."
Baker draws his ideas partly from his own life, and partly from the lives and works of others. One recent poem, he says, was inspired by the journals of Puritan minister Samuel Sewall. "First I imagine him at his desk, writing, and the rest is me writing about my daughter and myself building a playground in the rain," he says. "It's putting those two historical moments together and blending them."
Baker says he's "flattered and delighted" by the Guggenheim award, and intends to take the next year off from teaching to work on another book of essays and two books of poetry, as well as giving readings of his works around the country.
But his greatest delight, he says, will be the continuation of his internal dialogue with the transformative power of language.
"When I have the time to work like this, I can't wait to get up in the morning and see who will come knocking at the door... and what idea will come to me," he says.
Denison University, founded in 1831, is an independent, residential liberal arts institution located in Granville, Ohio. A highly selective college enrolling 2,100 full-time undergraduate students from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries, Denison is a place where innovative faculty and motivated students collaborate in rigorous scholarship, civic engagement and the cultivation of independent thinking.
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