Nicholson Baker's Enthusiasms and Passionate Obsessions

by Christopher Guerin

3 November 2009

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In Defense of Poetry

In Defense of Poetry

...we get a fanatic’s not-to-be-contradicted defense of tetrameter, “the soul of English poetry”, at the expense of pentameter, and a strong case for Algernon Charles Swineburne being the greatest rhymer in the language, and the cause of the reaction that lead to Modernism, the ascendancy of free verse, and even the fascism of Pound.

Nicholson Baker’s latest, The Anthologist, is Baker’s love letter to poetry. Paul Chowder, its narrator, is an American poet of some distinction. Once rumored a candidate for Poet Laureate, he has published in the New Yorker and American Poetry Review, is regularly invited to read his work and speak at symposia, and has attained the level of respect and credibility required to become that ultimate arbiter of the art form, an anthologist.

The Anthologist is Chowder’s account of a bout of writer’s block so bad that it not only prevents him from writing poems or finishing the introduction to his anthology of formal verse, but threatens to destroy his love life, as well. Every day, Chowder (one wants to say “Chowderhead”, but Baker never slights his narrator enough to invite the insult – Chowder’s just too charming) retires to his New England barn ostensibly to write, but spends the day singing to himself, cleaning and organizing, or just daydreaming. All this finally causes Roz, his girlfriend of eight years, and the bill-payer of the household, to decamp in frustration.

The book is also Paul Chowder’s Defense of Poetry, in particular poetry that rhymes, scans, and, ultimately, moves the reader in a way that free verse forms cannot. His anthology is entitled Only Rhyme, and the fact that Chowder is confessedly a writer of free verse himself, what he calls “plums” rather than “poetry”, is a charming contradiction that contributes to the persuasiveness of his “defense”.

Interspersed with the droll details of Chowder’s desultory day to day existence (punctuated with frequent accidents causing damage to his digits), and the occasional in-the-flesh sighting of dead poets (Poe, Theodore Roethke), we get a fanatic’s not-to-be-contradicted defense of tetrameter, “the soul of English poetry”, at the expense of pentameter, and a strong case for Algernon Charles Swineburne being the greatest rhymer in the language, and the cause of the reaction that lead to Modernism, the ascendancy of free verse, and even the fascism of Pound.

cover art

The Anthologist

Nicholson Baker

(Simon & Schuster)

The Anthologist is also a love story. Roz may have moved out, but she’s not gone far, and returns to help with Smacko the dog or to bind up Chowder’s finger-wounds on a moment’s notice. In response, Chowder ruminates on other poet’s tattered love lives, in particular Vachel Lindsay’s failure to win Sara Teasdale, and the lost weekend of booze and sex that Louise Bogan once spent with Theodore Roethke.

Clearly, Baker has spent a lot of time not only reading, but thinking about poetry, so, not surprisingly, he includes here and there his own advice to young poets. Chowder, at a master class, when asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem,” answers with this astonishingly good advice: “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask myself: what was the very best moment of your day?” He goes on, “this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me.”

I’m curious to see what the poetry world will make of this novel. Fearless about inviting controversy in some of his other works, Baker is gentler here, though dealing with such easy targets as careerism and inflated careers, logrolling, creative writing programs, and the proliferation of bad poetry, what he calls “slow-motion prose”. I say “gentle”, though he does name names throughout. He calls the ubiquitous Billy Collins “a charming chirping crack whore” and makes Paul Muldoon look like the George Clooney of the poetry world. My favorite, though, is this:

And now it’s like I’m on some infinitely tall ladder… that leads up into the blinding blue. The world is somewhere very far below. I don’t know how I got here. It’s a mystery. When I look up I see people climbing, rung by rung. I see Jorie Graham, I see Billy Collins, I see Ted Kooser. They’re all clinging to the ladder too. And above them, I see Auden, Kunitz. Whoa, way up there. Samuel Daniel. Sara Teasdale. Herrick. Tiny figures, clambering, clinging. The wind comes over, whsssew, and it’s cold, and the ladder vibrates, and I feel very exposed and high up. Off to one side there’s Helen Vendler, in her trusty dirigible, filming our ascent. And I look down and there are many people behind me. They’re hurrying up to where I am. They’re twenty-three-year-old energetic climbing creatures in their anoraks and goggles, and I’m trying to keep climbing. But my hands are cold and going numb. My arms are tired to tremblement. It’s freezing, and it’s lonely, and there’s nobody to talk to. And what if I just let go? What if I just loosed my grip, and fell to one side, and just—fffshhhooooow. Let go. Would that be such a bad thing?

The metaphor may not be original, but the execution is perfect.

Typical of Nicholson Baker, this is not a plot-driven novel, just the opposite, though there is a satisfying arc to both Chowder’s struggle with writer’s block (those looking for good advice how do defeat that will have to look elsewhere) and his relationship with Roz. The book’s real charm may escape those with little interest in poetry or poets, but I found it scintilating. This is not Baker’s version of an Updike Bech book for those who want to laugh at the pretensions of the poetry world (though there will be the occasional giggle). The Anthologist, instead, is a fine novelist’s wistful, quirky, heartfelt, and keen-eyed meditation on an art form that he loves intensely, but does not practice.

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