From the Heart
Even in the noisy world of technology,
poetry can thrive
For Wendy Barker, the beauty
and profound depth of
poetry begins when we’re
children. No, she takes
that back. It begins even earlier–in
"As tiny beings inside our mothers,
we hear that heartbeat, those gurgles,
our mother’s voice," said Barker, a
professor of English and UTSA’s poet in
residence. "All those pulses and sounds
we live with for nine months. The origin
of poetry goes back to the womb."
Poetry has been central to Barker’s
existence, so much so that she can’t
imagine a life without it.
Yet, like the rest of us, Barker lives
in a world of iPads,
Xbox, Skype and neverending
hype on the
latest electronic gadget.
It’s a world driven
by technology and all
manner of scientific
inquiry and discovery.
In such a world, can
the somewhat quaint, romantic notion
of poetry survive?
Indeed, explained Barker. It can
"Poetry’s never going to die as long
as we’re creatures with heartbeats," said
Barker, who earned her doctorate at the
University of California, Davis.
She likes to quote the 20th-century
American poet William Carlos Williams,
who said, "It is difficult to get the news
from poems, yet men die miserably every
day for lack of what is found there."
Born in New Jersey but raised in
Arizona, Barker grew up to the sounds
"My mother and father read A.A.
Milne’s poems to me from the time I was
a toddler—When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. The delight in the
play of the language in those poems
never left me."
When she was older, her father
would read poems out loud after
dinner. Robert Frost was a favorite.
But poetry is much more than
pretty words, said Barker, author of
hundreds of poems and a dozen books
"Frost once said ‘Poetry is a way of
taking life by the throat,’ " she said. It can
also heal, she added.
"‘Genuine poetry can communicate
before it is understood,’ as T.S. Eliot
said. It can make us aware of ‘unnamed
feelings.’ He wanted a
poem to come from the
deep emotional core of
the writer to reach the
deep emotional core of
the reader or listener,"
Barker said. "When we
write from that deep
emotional core, we are
writing from our soul.
From the deepest part of ourselves,
which is also maybe the highest part.
I’ve seen poetry connect people as profoundly
as music can."
But poetry tends to intimidate a
lot of people these days, Barker acknowledged.
Perhaps it’s seen as elitist
One reason, she said, is that some
of the great poets from the early 20th
century, like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound,
"were consciously trying to write poetry
that did not appeal to the masses. They
were tired of the easy rhymes and
sentimental verse popular in the late
19th century. They were trying to write
something new that reflected the age in
which they lived.
"Now, today, many of us can look at
their poems and find that we don’t have
as much difficulty with them as people
at the time did, because somehow our
sensibilities have caught up. But their
flagrant determination to flaunt their
stuff without any regard for popular
taste caused a lot of people to turn off
Moreover, she said, a national
and natural poetic disposition is impeded
by a culture that mainly values
From the very beginning of this
country, from our Calvinist ancestors,
she said, the arts were seen by many as
a waste of time, not worthy of a people
who needed to be doing "real" work.
"There are other cultures where
leaders of governments are poets,"
Barker said. "Throughout South America
and Europe, poetry is far more valued
than it is in the United States, where it’s,
‘How much money do you make?’"
When people say they don’t read
poetry or care for it, "I don’t think they
really mean it," Barker said. "People who
say that have been taught poetry poorly."
A good poem, she’s fond of saying,
"should hit you in the gut... before
you even start thinking intellectually
And while she once taught high
school and middle school and calls
public school teachers "incredibly
burdened" and even "heroic," she
believes that some teachers just aren’t
comfortable with poetry.
"So, rather than reading a poem
out loud, just reading it and letting the
words catch fire, the way you listen
to music—you don’t listen to a song
and then immediately dissect it—the
students are given the poem only in
writing and they’re asked to puzzle it
out," she said. "That can take the joy
out of it."
Even in her classes now, Barker
said, she fights the concept of poetry as
a problem to be solved.
"One of the things I was struggling
against in a class recently was the desire
of many students, when confronting a
poem for the first time, immediately to
try to analyze it," she said. "I always want
to start by letting a poem wash through
you. Let it have its effect. Relish it. Then,
of course, our curiosity leads us to want
to understand how the poem creates its
effect on us."
Not surprisingly, Barker believes
that poetry "is an integral part of the
university’s mission," not just because
it’s the oldest of the verbal art forms "but
because it is so vital and vibrant."
It’s at least as important as studying
biology, she said.
"Once somebody asked what I
wrote. When I said poetry, he said, ‘Oh,
fluffy stuff.’ No, it’s not fluffy stuff. If it’s
working, it hits us deep down, where
–Joe Michael Feist
Sombrilla Magazine: Who do you write poetry for?
Wendy Barker: I don't write with a particular reader in mind, but I do not want my poems only to reach other poets. I'd die happy if I felt that my poems were respected by the best poets but also moved folks who don't write themselves.
While working on a poem, I don't think of audience, but of the voice from which the poem needs to speak, the place from which the poem needs to grow. Each poem will have its own diction and syntactical patterns, as well as its own kind of music and use of poetic devices (like metaphor), and the work is to find what each particular poem needs to do. But I always try to make sure that a poem reaches beyond a strictly academic readership.
SM: Where/when do you write? Do you journal in verse? Do you write on paper or computer? Any rituals to writing?
WB: I write whenever I can. I don't have a regular schedule. I'm not one of those writers who writes from, say, 8 to 12 every day. But I write regularly and rigorously. Sometimes I'm working on a draft while also doing laundry and getting up from time to time to put clothes in the dryer. Often I go back to a draft many times during a day and evening. I revise obsessively. I'm always working on a poem, or several poems, even in my head while I'm doing chores or driving.
I do take notes frequently in a journal, and sometimes jot a first draft in handwriting. But always the real work is on the computer.
No rituals. I just write. Whenever I can. Sometimes I'll be working on a poem and not realize that four or six hours have gone by.
SM: What was the first poem you memorized?
WB: I think the first poem I learned "by heart" was Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods.
SM: Who is your favorite classic poet and why? Your favorite emerging poet?
WB: There are too many to name. Keats, Browning, Dickinson, Whitman, Donne—and if we can move to the 20th century, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke—so many, so much richness.
Emerging? Or contemporary? Again, so many. Here in San Antonio, Barbara Ras. And my wonderful colleagues at UTSA. And David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Denise Duhamel, John Koethe, Tony Hoagland, Alicia Ostriker, Ruth Stone and many, many more.
SM: Whose poetry do you read for comfort? For inspiration?
WB: I don't read for comfort, but if I need to be calmed, I'll go to Matsuo Basho, Marisa Bisson or Kobayashi Issa. Also, I love to read poems by poets writing in languages other than English. Though I'm pretty much monolingual, I love reading poems in translation with the original version alongside. Celan, Rilke, Montale, Neruda, Paz, Juarroz. Something about getting out of my own language and into another as best I can provides a way of opening into all kinds of possibilities.