1122: Childhood by David Baker

20240521 Slowdown

1122: Childhood by David Baker


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Here’s another craft episode…but perhaps more of an instigation. I don’t want to complain about what is missing in contemporary poetry. I want to talk about the extended conceit. It is one of the finest tools in poetry. It not only entertains the reader by way of wit and cleverness, but also sharpens the mind of a poet as they work to render legible their feelings, which, let’s admit, lies in obscurity without the press of language. Everyone’s feelings lie in obscurity without some communication, written or otherwise.

A conversation last winter with a friend led us down the path to a point of disagreement. “Metaphor making is deceptive and superfluous, on par with lying,” he said. “One thing is not like another thing.” On the surface, I agree — but how wondrous to imagine a world absent of division, and how wondrous for a poet to disentangle the chaotic bits of existence into an instance of lucid meaning, to bring to light a world in an elegant relationship with itself.

If the simile is a layup in a basketball game, and a metaphor is a jump shot from the foul line, then the extended conceit is a half-court attempt to win the game. You have options on any court, other players orbiting around you, but control of the conceit is paramount. That is, orchestrating the entire buzz, and of course, not letting the ball go out of bounds. Keeping it in play. All passes must be crisp and accurate, and the final shot is the result of an accumulative strategy, one of dazzling the reader until the ball drops through the hoop.

I enjoy today’s poem immensely for how it makes its opening comparison, then leads us to the sweet conclusion, one about an experience we all share. Yet, it individualizes through the power of metaphor.

by David Baker

I miss the cold, but not the cold breaking,
not the small limbs sheared, nor the icepick cold
white wind working its whole way through you
no matter your coat and gloves, and no matter 
the blue scarf someone tied and tucked tight.

The same cold blue all day in the sky. Frozen
blue through limbs of the two standing elms.
Brilliant each blue. Blue the color of new
snow like wafers on the fields. Come in cold then, 
and the dark comes with you, kick off your boots

and someone is rubbing your feet so they 
sting, then stop stinging. Now the bruised-apple-
red bottle at the foot of your bed, steaming,
and come morning woodsmoke in the kitchen.
I miss the cold then, so cold there is singing.

"Childhood" by David Baker. Originally published in The New Yorker.