Baker, Nicholson (2009), The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster
Poetry is damnably difficult to write about. As Mary Kinzie has pointed out in her excellent Poet’s Guide to Poetry, poetry criticism often turns out to be a “sort of paraphrase”, and poetry is perhaps the one genre that can bear paraphrase and even translation least of all. Poetry critics abound, who do an injustice to the genre they write about, and this whole mess has all kinds of uncomfortable links to academically reared poetry, that has resulted in poets who learned their craft at universities and returned to teach there, a closed circle of a kind, certainly. So, even poets sometimes, and critics who earn their livelihood writing about poetry don’t necessarily do well at this game. Knowing all this, I was cautious, skeptic, even, approaching Nicholson Baker’s new novel which is written from a poets point of view and it’s about poetry:
Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem, because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they are saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.
Baker has accrued quite a following, different prizes and a sizable reputation, in several languages, but not as a poet. Baker has written and excelled both at writing novels and nonfictional prose, and he has been known to blur the lines between these modes of writing, most recently in his strange paean to pacifism, Human Smoke, which is structured and narrated like a novel but consists of an enormous amount of documents and documented quotes and statements. A similar kind of mixture can be found in The Anthologist, his new novel, which is an enjoyable, intriguing and multi-layered read, written with a sure and accomplished hand.
It’s a pleasure to read, a book that you are soon loath to put down, which draws you in and, for me, didn’t really let up until you’ve finished all of it. The appeal, its draw, cannot be chalked up to its plot since there’s no plot to speak of, small things happen, but much of the interest stems from the protagonist’s strange and inconsistent voice that drives the whole book. The book starts with the protagonist introducing himself. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” And it’s an able description of the book that follows. Where a text like Human Smoke introduced fictional elements in order to tell a story, The Anthologist contains a strong streak of nonfictional elements; in fact, the nonfictional sections could be argued to provide the bulk of the book. Baker’s protagonist is a poet and teacher, who is currently trying to assemble an anthology. He professes a strong dislike for teaching, but he’s what is usually referred to as an unreliable narrator, and his distaste for teaching turns out to be one of many inconsistencies in the book. See, although he claims to dislike it, when he runs into trouble writing the introduction to the Anthology that is supposed to be called “Only Rhymes”, he imagines himself in the midst of giving a lecture, a task that appears to help, calm him, and that usually helps him to give a shape to his slightly disjointed thoughts.
This episode is a small-scale depiction of how the whole book works which contains longer slices of an imaginary lecture about meter and rhyme in English poetry, embedded in a disjointed, largely associative narrative. Paul Chowder is making up his mind. His life is falling apart and he sits down and considers it all, as it is, his current relationships to women, relatives, and to his own art. The book is written, for the most part, in the present tense, and as Chowder thinks about his life and lectures us about poetry, we can see his life change, we see how it is transformed into something different. Not radically different but slightly. It shifts, in its rhythms and emphases, and the book charts this development. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much room for the enormous amount of development and characterization that is taking place here, since so much of the book is taken up by Chowder’s lectures. And they are lectures, not just essayistic diversions. Chowder directly addresses the reader (or hearer) of the book, talking to him, reasoning with him, and above all, constantly asking him to do something, try to keep a beat, speak something aloud. I have had a terrific teacher of contemporary poetry, and Chowder’s passionate but eccentric way of teaching reminded me of him. Chowder jumps from one end of his subject to another, drawing connections, associations, in short: making a case for his thesis.
His thesis, or rather: his attempt at a coherent statement is a restitution of rhymed and strictly metered poetry to its proper place, at the vanguard of poetry. In one of many derisory statements he refers to free verse as “pretend stanzas of chopped garbage” or “plums”. His interesting but unusual ideas on meter draw on brilliant scholars such as Derek Attridge, in fact, I was tempted, at times, to pull Attridge from my shelf to check whether some of Chowder’s raves and rants weren’t taken verbatim from his work. It’s probably not particularly riveting nor, in and of itself, helpful, to recount the specifics of Chowder’s thesis here, but it’s worth pointing out that it is based on a disdain for the conventional wisdom that would have the pentameter as the ‘natural’ English meter. Open any current introduction to the art of English poetry, from Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance to Timothy Steele’s All the fun’s in how you say a thing and this will jump at you, probably in an introductory chapter and will be repeated throughout the book. Chowder will have none of this. Not only does he propose a completely different meter as the normal or natural meter for English poetry, he also proposes a notion of rests. None of this is original, mind you, but it is unorthodox, and I’d suggest that much of it, while certainly learned and most certainly not without educational value, could be read more profitably as a symptom of Chowder’s emotional states than as something that strives for objective instruction.
This is one of Baker’s many admirable achievements in the book: he’s done an enormous amount of research, on a topic that he probably wasn’t intensely familiar with at the outset, but the results feels completely organic, so much so, in fact, that we believe the book’s premise, i.e., that the whole of it isn’t Baker’s research but Chowder’s original thought. This is different from Human Smoke, where Baker caught a lot of flak for the odd political opinions he quoted. This success in The Anthologist is partly due to the immensely passionate tone that Chowder brings to the table, his fits and quirks, his bouts of anger, his long rants about Filippo Marinetti, Ezra Pound and an assortment of modernists, and his equally long raves and tributes to writers such as his cherished Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke (for my own comments on Roethke, see this review), Louise Bogan and Mary Oliver, amongst others. Having the ear, or having at least the willingness to apply one’s ear to a poem, or a whole poet’s work, to look for a tone, moods, for ripples on the surface of the poem, as well as a certain reluctance to jump ahead to what a poem “really means”, this has become rare, and poetry criticism (and, arguably, poetry itself) is the poorer for it. Without criticizing theoretical approaches to poetry, the utter lack of sympathetic readings of poems, the kinds of reading that used to be called hermeneutic in Schleiermacher’s days, this, I think, really hurts the whole field, draining it of a necessary energy, making poetry less of a viable and vital force than it could, no, than it should be.
Poetry isn’t made of messages, it’s made of language, and among the major modes of literature, poetry is arguably the one that is most directly, purely even, concerned with language, and with the thinking that precedes, I think, consciousnes, envelops it in folds of language; it is, I think, uniquely equipped to describe, or deal with, “the fiction that results from feeling” (to quote Stevens) and even with what spiritual content is washed ashore. I could point to a couple of poems that make this point, but novels? By non-poets? Few and far between. The Anthologist, an extended ars poetica, is one of them. Like many of the best works of literature, it achieves this through a complex mixture of direct disquisition and subtle indirection. We are never allowed to forget that the passion isn’t Baker’s, it’s Paul Chowder’s, and the form and tone he adopts is indicative of his character and related issues. His attraction to the unorthodox, is part of a general anxiety, not Bloom’s overused “Anxiety of Influence”, but a real anxiety that Chowder understands to be part of the poetic endeavor; to highlight this, he uses the image of long ladders reaching up into the skies with every poet and critic hurrying up the rungs, up, up, up, and Chowder confesses of a feeling of exhaustion, a tiredness, in the face of the arduous ascent and the competition below, beside and above him.
This anxiety, and a heavy feeling of defeat, certainly drive his expansive remarks just as powerfully as his passion for poetry. Although his voice is always strong and present, Chowder himself appears to slip in and out of his own story, as he layers it with inconsistencies. There are things that sound false, like the poetry convention hailing the arrival of Paul Muldoon, as if Muldoon was the singer of a mildly famous rock band. There is Chowder’s obsession with the question whether he will or will not get printed in the New Yorker. More to the point, there are his gaps or contradictions inasmuch as his art and his convictions as they relate to that art are concerned. He extols rhymes, but admits to write unrhymed (not necessarily free verse) poetry himself, and among the 20th century poets he seems to admire most are poets like Elizabeth Bishop and especially Mary Oliver; Oliver is particularly interesting in that she can safely be classed as a fee verse poet, a major, complex poet making brilliant use of line and meter, but she produces just the kind of poetry he seems to spurn in other poets. On a related note, for an anthologist who claims to be well read in rhymed and metered poetry, there is his dismissal of James Merrill as merely a pretty face
She would say her heroes’ names in her gorgeous juicy accent, holding her fingers together: “Mark Strand – he is simply the top.” And I would say, Okay I’ll have to check him out. Later I did check him out, and I thought, he was fine but not great. But he was exceedingly good-looking, I could see that, a real Charlton Hestonian face, one of those hellishly handsome poets. James Merrill was another and back then I lumped W.S. Merwin in with them. But that’s not right, because Merwin has genius as well as looks.
This is profoundly baffling, since Merrill is arguably the best, most dexterous and complex American writer of formal verse in the second half of the 20th century. If you are well read enough in this area to attempt an anthology of poets and poems, you wouldn’t overlook that.
But this oversight is necessary, it’s Nicholson Baker’s way of demonstrating to us the superficial nature of Chowder’s lecture; this does not mean that Chowder doesn’t, in general, know what he’s talking about, but the whole lecture, the diversions and asides, these are red herrings, facades behind which Chowder hides his hurts, fears. Early in the book Baker, in another poetologically laden scene, tells us, that Chowder is easily distracted, that he will embrace distraction, even, in order not to deal with the task at hand: rebuilding his life. He’s constantly evading his life, dodging responsibility, putting off standing up for himself as a poet and lover. Instead, he makes a big show of fighting for his literary critical convictions, proposing and defending an unorthodox theory, and he doesn’t even wait for us to ask, to think, doubt, he launches into full teacher mode. As a teacher, his explanations are marvelous, but the contradictions, the diversions, they should make us suspicious of his actual qualities as a teacher. We are his audience but we don’t really exist, for him, there’s nothing to confront or deal with, so he can talk freely. There is no voice that halts him, that checks him, forces him to double down and think, it’s just him and his game. Baker’s incredible skill makes us understand how Chowder’s mind works, but the lack of balance in the voice and the very loose and light plotting make this an easy, a light read.
The Anthologist is in love with its narrator and although it’s written by a master stylist, the indulgences that result from this affection, serve to weaken the whole book considerably. There is too much tentativeness, too much indirection, the book is content with Chowder’s little spiel. This could have been a masterpiece, but it’s not. It’s a short book that should have been even shorter, a sarcastic book that should have been more sarcastic, a bitter book that lacks bitterness. However you look at it, it’s not enough. But, and hear me right, this is a great, great read. It’s an incredibly well written, light book about poetry, and it’s a very good book about poetry. Read it, you will not be disappointed. Judging from this book alone, Nicholson Baker is a stunning novelist.