Heresy and the Ideal is a powerful collection of essays and essay-reviews which David Baker wrote and published throughout the 1990s. He thoroughly discusses the work of more than fifty contemporary poets, including T. R. Hummer, Miller Williams, Albert Goldbarth, Jane Kenyon, Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, David Wojahn, Alice Fulton, Louise Glück, and Charles Wright. He takes as his models some of the great critical books of the past three decades, especially Richard Howard's masterpiece, Alone with America, and Helen Vendler's Part of Nature, Part of Us, as well as other works by Laurence Lieberman, Majorie Perloff, Carol Muske, and Mary Kinzie.
At its center, Heresy and the Ideal is based on Baker's sense of Romantic poetics, especially on how contemporary poets have applied, altered, or rejected certain Romantic principles. He uses the Romantic trope to measure the tension between passion and reason and between the problems of literary transcendence and the obligations of social engagement.
The result is a welcome variety of enlightening, practical criticism devoid of exclusionary jargon and based on persistent attention to an individual poem or book of poems. Utilizing the essay-review, Baker considers each poet's purposes and achievements. He blends the strategies of explanation, analysis, and evaluation, clarifying each poet's work instead of complaining or condemning.
Heresy and the Ideal addresses a wide and diverse range of contemporary poetry and should take a deserved place both as a critical introduction to the work of many important poets and as a work that documents and explores the shape of poetry at the end of the millennium.