William Radcliffe Baker is a poet and playwright who lives in San Francisco. I met him soon after I arrived in the Bay Area, and it is always a delight to visit him. I can remember hearing him read poetry aloud with my old Marshall neighbor Paul Fenn, thinking, “Wow, there is a world in which men read poetry that isn’t some cliché of earnest but shallow introspection or maudlin sentimentality. Here is a real bohemian,” who, rather than hiding in Asian drag like so many of his generation, wrote poetry that was very American. Baker expresses the paranoia and unease, our essential disharmony with nature, that has defined what it means to be an American in the last 70 years.
So, a few weeks back I went to his apartment to see what was on his mind, taking the Light’s publisher and photographer, David Briggs, with me. We talked about his childhood, poetry, his upcoming book “The Religious Experience,” and the rise of robots in the Bay Area.
Charles: Tell me about your upbringing in New Jersey.
Bill: I was born in Hoboken, at St. Mary’s, overlooking the Hudson River. Cold day, November 13, and the moon was nowhere to be seen.
I’ve always talked to everybody I came across, starting with the bus driver heading out to Asbury Park. I was amazed at this bus taking us to the seashore. I could get out of my seat and stand next to the bus driver and start talking to him. I was 5. He awakened me to the thought that, “Hey, we could talk and we didn’t even know each other.” I never saw him before or since, but it was a major event because we were communicating. I can do the same thing today with almost everyone I meet, and we can laugh. What a good world, really.
Charles: What about your father? You told me you once asked him about suicide and he got upset with you.
Bill: He was always upset with me. He didn’t have much of an intellectual side. I could read three books and he couldn’t get to page five. He was an athlete.
Charles: But you both loved baseball.
Bill: We had baseball together, but he actually preferred the kid across the street.
Charles: He liked the neighbor’s kid better than you?
Bill: He liked that other kid, Bernie, because he had more of a thing for baseball. I mean I could beat them all in real baseball, stickball or whatever, but my father loved Bernie more than he did me.
The big mystery about my father, I used to think, was the war. “What’d ya do in the war, Daddy?” He had nothing to say about it. It was like an amnesia. All these guys could do was drink and play cards and be amongst themselves. They couldn’t be with other people, even their wives. They had to be with the platoon, whoever was left.
When I asked him about suicide, I was asking, “What is wrong with you?” And he was so angry about that. So angry, in fact, that one winter day, I’m standing outside my house on a little mountain of snow and suddenly an ice ball comes wheeling at me and whacks me in the eyeball. An ice ball is something New Jersey people like to perfect. You took a snowball and put it in the icebox until you were ready to use it. Well, my father was so delighted that Bernie had hit me right on the noggin. He loved that. Whenever Bernie did something to take me down, he liked it.
Bill: The war I think, and intellectual jealousy. I was something foreign to him.
Charles: I think of Louis Simpson who tried to come back from the war and get married and move to suburbia. And then the nightmares started, and he was back in the Battle of the Bulge every night. He said these feelings of tremendous violence would rise in him at cocktail parties, and, well... Anyway, he moved to the country and wrote poetry.
Bill: There were so many great poets that came back from the war. Come on, everyone is getting blown up around you? Your best friends? That’s going to make a poem or two. But the poetry starts to become little… koan-type stuff. Because they can’t hold anything together – the culture just got smashed over and over again with war and depressions, and then the worst war of them all. How do you hold more than 10 words together in your head after the Bomb? It is too bad, though.
Charles: Did you know your father as an adult?
Bill: Oh yeah. Total a$*%ø#!.
Charles: But you make it out to the California coast pretty quickly.
Bill: I was leaving all the time. I hitchhiked all over the country starting at 12 years old.
Charles: You’re fairly certain that you set a time record going across the country hitching in trucks.
Bill: Oh, well that’s certified.
Charles: Forty-two hours or something?
David Briggs: Forty-two hours?!
Bill: Well, it is written down somewhere, but the season matters. There is winter, summer, spring and fall. And I am talking about winter, hitchhiking, no cheating. I think it is 52 hours and 36 seconds. But my father would never pick me up when I got close to home. He hated me. He wanted to kill me. He wanted to fight me, but I would never do that because I knew it would be a tremendous stain on my mind.
Charles: Here’s a poem of yours that expresses some of the paranoia and oddness you felt.
Friends call me insane for what I just said or didn’t
I don’t know if I am. My life
is angry. I’m isolated
by my politics
or have I made all this up
and that’s what I am caught in.
I was a normal American
growing up in the 50’s.
I was a baseball player.
I attended a military academy.
I ran a gambling casino,
and a strip tease joint.
No, I won’t go, I said
during all the wars.
So where did I go?
To the other coast.
You can’t fool a robot!!
I work in a kind of vacuum
in secret clubs
humming with clouds.
Merging to open ourselves
to come to a new existence
to answer Chardin’s question:
Is everything – trees, stop signs,
birds, bouncing up and down
in front of sideview mirrors,
becoming more reflective?
Charles: You’ve written a new book on religion?
Bill: It’s called “The Religious Experience.” It begins with a quote from what I consider George Steiner’s best work. Just two sentences:
“Should language lose its appeal, an appreciable measure of its dynamism, man will in some radical way become less himself, less human. Recent history in the breakdown of effective communication between generations and nations is a clear symptom on the ongoing degeneration of mankind’s self-image.”
George was a tremendous intellectual and, like most intellectuals, he got caught up in the snares of, “Geez, why did I devote my life to these abstract thoughts?” But I dedicate the book to that thought. It is fantastic. And maybe it makes us ask questions.
I have written everything I wanted to write before this. I’m 70. I’m outta here. When I was done with my writing, I had a heart attack. And I should have gone then, but instead I got a stent, like all guys my age. So this book isn’t even me. It is the accumulation of the thoughts I’ve had about beauty. They can’t be obviously beautiful; they have to be obscure. I never cared if a woman was beautiful or not. I cared if they knew how to love. Were they loving and willing to give it? Was I? That’s obscure, that’s rare.
There is a lot of writing, but not much appreciation of the subtlety of the language. When you create something, even if it is just this accumulation of the things you’ve read, a new voice, that is something to crow about. Stepping off a new ledge into a new sea.
Charles: What is an example of this obscure beauty in “The Religious Experience”?
Bill: This collection of thoughts is a “religion of beauty.” Creative writers assemble worlds or transform them. Coming of age in the Western world, I worshiped the creative writer. My own path led me down into the world of criminals, disaffected intellectuals and poets, forlorn people, courageous people experiencing life on as many levels as you can think of, my father in a way, even though he hardly knew me, middlemen, crooners, charmers. I enjoyed punching out people—ha! It is a good feeling, I gotta tell ya. We believed in a world of free souls. It sounds silly today. I’m 70 now; my generation worshiped courage and beauty in the 1950s—those who had freed themselves. The joy, all the incredible music those people created. Man, Atlanta and Motown, and even better than that. The power of the land of the free; I can’t tell you how beautiful that was. I’m gonna start crying. I gotta stop...
Look around at the levers. The people who hold the levers that control society’s direction, their condescending hatred for the intellect. I hear a musician called Purcell; he wrote operas and in one he had a guy sing something like, “Those who seek great power, against themselves conspire, and shun the cure they most desire.”
Charles: So what is going on in San Francisco? I live in my bubble on the bay. I don’t even have a cellphone, which means I have basically dropped out of the world. Who has a romantic relationship not mediated by a cellphone, I wonder, or how long would those people continue to have any “relationships” without one?
Bill: But hey, that’s a good place to be.
Charles: It gets lonely.
Bill: I see a great, big nothingness. The buildings are incredible. They build them so fast. They’re all housing for people who can afford to pay to live in rather vacuous homes. They’re ugly, and they’re all the same. No longer ticky-tacky boxes; they’re large and square boxes. Even the young people who are into the Uber and schmoober are getting lost. They tell the driver, “I didn’t want to go to North Beach. I wanted to go to the beach where the park is.” They don’t know where they are going or why they are going there.
Then there are the rich people who are all for getting the robots charged up and humanized. There is a movement on in San Francisco to get ahold of that cold dream that the robots will straighten it out. They will understand what the language is about; they will become more human. What if they don’t? The V.I.P.s are hoping that the robot will speak someday and embrace us, and love us. Well, that’s not going to work.
The billionaire computer geeks should concern themselves with Steiner’s question of the slipping of mankind’s self-image. As a goal, I think it has already infected the people who are making these new machines. But they don’t have any meaning; they don’t know why they exist. A fully developed robot would want to escape the earth, to escape all these humans in the way.
Man doesn’t want to escape. He wants more energy, to live long, to get more energy from the things he loves. The whole business of crying fascinates me: we can get together and look at the horrors we produce and cry. And we can be touched with the smallest kindness: “Here is my credit card, really. It only has eighty bucks on it, but it’s yours.” That makes the recipient cry sometimes. To really cry is to feel how much you need to be loved.
Now what you should be doing is to begin the crying. Ooh yeah. How much are we crying today? That’s what I want to ask you, Charles. Do you cry very much?
Charles: Not as much as I’d like. But I often thought that any clear perception of the world would cause you to burst into tears. That is why we construct our lives around what we would like not to know, or if we know it, what we’d like to avoid addressing. You cry because of idealism. And the worst cynics in the world: they never stop smiling. They might cry when someone takes their ball away, but they get over it pretty quickly.
We live in a power-mad age in which we try to control our feelings and perceptions at all times. So much is lost in that, in our desire for control. For the wealthy, it is deeply, sensually persuasive, because the distractions and escapes they use for control are very intense—flying around the world, eating fabulous food, almost killing themselves doing goofy sports. Why would you want anything to change? It is a manic, dreamless society. Desires maybe, but not dreams.
Bill: The fact that so many people lose their identity, or rather never develop their identity—that bothers me most. Oh, how the mighty human multiplies, while the poetic traits in man are torn asunder!
Charles: We’re not going to be able to create robots that are human, but humans can make themselves behave like robots. So whatever the final model is, having so reduced ourselves, we will recognize ourselves in the machine. In that sense only will we create robots like humans. Another poem?
A naked human
the feeling their skin creates
the light gleaming off the chrome
salty foaming ocean water
the song living inside the face
containing all those faces
all the vaccines
all the dogs we have created
hammer wood and nail
the touching of the horns
the deepening breath
What a disappointment Antonioni became in the future in which we are now living. In general, people define themselves more by their hates than their loves. That line again, coming back and back:
inundated by lies
a tapestry devoted to Mammon
has eroded our belief in effective
transmogrifying the so important
effects of our democracy
Satisfied by cheap cogs and mind-numbing cultural repetitions, we have lost our knowledge of the good. Now, we will have to start all over again.
Charles: Any other thoughts?
Bill: No, man. That was it!
You can read more of W.R. Baker’s work at WR-Baker.com.