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The High-Wire Artist

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Robert Gumpert/NB Pictures/Contact Press Images
Nicholson Baker, Berkeley, California, 1998

Anyone who believes that poetry in this country is either dead or about to breathe its last ought to stop by a good bookstore and take a look at all the books and literary magazines being published. Or even better, let them search the Web and sample a few of the millions of entries found there on the subject of poets and poetry. The more they learn, the more baffled they’ll find themselves. At least one search yielded, for example, some 1,480,000 separate items on Emily Dickinson, 184,000 on John Ashbery, and 170,000 on Mary Oliver. Even the darkest cultural pessimist is bound to be taken aback.

Who are these folks who seem determined to copy and comment on almost every poem in the language without earning a penny in return? Are they a small, dedicated minority or a vast army of loners and insomniacs whose numbers run into the thousands? Do they have regular jobs? Are they married and do they have children? Where do they find the time to spend so many hours at the computer? In addition to what I already mentioned, there are more than 27,000 blogs on the Web devoted to poetry and countless online poetry magazines, both serious ones and ones where anyone can post a poem their eight-year-old daughter just wrote about the death of her goldfish.

According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, reading poetry continues to decline, especially among women. Still, in September of last year, more than 19,000 people attended the twelfth Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in a little town in New Jersey in which I participated with twenty other poets. Anyone who was there could plainly see that the thousands in attendance were Americans of all ages paying close attention and genuinely amused and even moved by the poems being read to them. For a country renowned for its short attention span, this was pretty amazing.

As was to be expected, most of the people in the audience at the festival were teachers and high school and university students, some of them coming from the 150 or so writing programs we now have in this country. What was striking about the poetry being read on the main stage every night was its variety. No single, overall characterization as to style and subject matter seemed possible. It’s as if these twenty poets did not live in the same country and in the same historical moment. This is the way it usually is. All our great and not-so-great poets have been more or less at odds not only with their times but with one another. Still, it doesn’t answer the question: Why this outpouring of affection? May poetry fulfill some profound need? Where else but in poems can these Americans find solace for their solitude and hear some small or great truth that touches their lives? Where else would they find a community of like-minded souls who care about something Emily Dickinson or Theodore Roethke has written? There’s nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry, one is tempted to say, or, if one disagrees, as Nicholson Baker does in his new novel, the people I’ve been describing are living in a fool’s paradise.

The Anthologist is the story of the middle-aged poet Paul Chowder, who despite having published three volumes of poetry and achieved a modest reputation in literary circles has now lost all confidence in his work. He lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, doesn’t have a regular job, and spends his days moping around. He has recently lost his girlfriend, who packed up and left after living with him for eight years because, for months on end, he couldn’t summon the energy to write the introduction for an anthology of rhymed poetry he is compiling and get a nice chunk of money he desperately needs in return.

Chowder is a gentle soul, a friendly and helpful neighbor who keeps his obsessions private. Like most creative artists, be they painters or furniture makers, who go around fretting day and night about what their real or imaginary competitors have done, his mood swings between contempt for and wild admiration of his fellow poets. Typically, he regards himself as the sole defender of an ideal that his contemporaries have lost sight of. “My life is necessary,” he tells himself, “because I sustain the idea of poetry through thick and thin.” He is an autodidact who has amassed a great deal of knowledge about some periods and aspects of poetry, while being either oblivious or uninformed about some others. He sets out to explain in this short novel what that ideal is, and where American poetry and his own life went wrong.

Not much of a plot, you might think. True, except that’s how Baker likes his novels to be. All are short and they ordinarily have no more than one or two main characters. Reading him is like watching a high-wire artist trying to keep his balance as he juggles several clubs, does a backward somersault, rides a unicycle, and jumps through a hoop. How is Baker going to pull any of this stuff off? we ask the moment we grasp the premise of one of his books. There is, for example, his first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), which consists entirely of observations, recollections, and musings of a young office worker as he rides the escalator to the mezzanine of the building where he works; or Vox (1992), in which two strangers, a man and a woman, exchange their most private feelings and fantasies of sex during one long telephone call; or Checkpoint (2004), in which two old friends get together in a Washington, D.C., hotel room after one has urgently summoned the other to confess that he is planning to assassinate President Bush; or A Box of Matches (2003), each chapter of which describes what the forty-four-year-old narrator, Emmet, who earns a living editing medical textbooks, thinks and remembers as he gets up each morning between four and five, makes himself a cup of coffee, and lights the fire in the fireplace. Boring? Not in the least! “Finding the things that people haven’t talked about and then talking about them is what writers and poets have always done,” Baker said in a Salon interview.

All of these novels—and several others I haven’t mentioned—are hard to put down. Baker’s heroes are not particularly ambitious, successful, or exceptional individuals. He is more interested in what goes on in the head of some poor slob destined for a life of drudgery whose inner life inevitably turns out to be quite amazing in its own way. He writes beautiful, clear prose that combines an extraordinary eye for physical detail with occasional, unexpected, and thoroughly satisfying imaginative leaps. He has a feel for the theatrical. His characters become so vivid they could be performing on a stage in a small, dark theater with many empty seats and one man sitting wholly absorbed in the very first row.

In “Lumber,” his marvelous essay about words and phrases in the English language, Baker quotes something Norman Douglas wrote about a character named Keith in South Wind that, I believe, is also true of Baker: “He had an encyclopaedic turn of mind; his head, as somebody once remarked, was a lumber-room of useless information.” With all his vast knowledge of things, both serious and trivial, Baker does not aspire to be another Pynchon. On the contrary, there’s something of a poet’s love of compression in his books. His starting point is that someone’s entire life can be reconstructed and understood from a single short event picked out almost at random. In his Salon interview he said:

What I was trying to do as a novelist was to cause interruptions in time that were long enough to do justice to whatever piece of the world was before me. To think about it, to find out where it was funny and beautiful and then to put it on the page.

Here’s a passage from his novel The Mezzanine that shows the kind of detail required for that reconstruction to take place:

It happened that nobody was on the escalators just then, either going down or going up, even though the end of lunch hour was a peak time. The absence of passengers, combined with the slight thumping sound the escalators made, quickened my appreciation of this metallic, uplifting machine. Grooved surfaces slid out from underneath the lobby floor and with an almost botanical gradualness segmented themselves into separate steps. As each step arose, it seemed individual and easily distinguished from the others, but after a few feet of escalation, it became difficult to track, because the eye moves in little hops when it is following a slow-moving pattern, and sometimes a hop lands the gaze on a step that is one above or below the one that you had fixed on; you find yourself skipping back down to the early, emergent part of the climb, where things are clearer. It’s like trying to follow the curve on a slowly rotating drill bit, or trying to magnify in with your eye to enter the first groove of a record and track the spiral visually as the record turns, getting lost in the gray anfractuosities almost immediately.

There’s plenty more in the novel about that escalator and the narrator’s stream of consciousness. Baker’s zeal to describe everything in sight may recall the nouveau roman with its cold, analytical renderings of objects and other minutiae of life. However, Baker is no Robbe-Grillet. In his fiction, the first-person narrator is in charge of the show. We are never in doubt that we are seeing the world through the eyes of one of his characters.

Although Baker is a thoroughly modern writer, comfortable with new technologies and the Internet, there’s also something of another century about his way of looking at things. He is like one of those small-town freethinkers and contrarians of old who haunted the local libraries and saloons, quoted Thomas Paine and Emerson, and could never pass up an opportunity to lecture or argue with a neighbor or even a stranger. Born in New York City in 1957, he spent most of his youth in Rochester where he attended the Eastman School of Music, got a BA in philosophy from Haverford College, worked for some years in Boston, and now lives in a small town in Maine.

Baker is a profoundly subversive writer. His books cause scandal. Vox was supposed to have been given by Monica Lewinsky to President Clinton to read. His other erotic novel, The Fermata (1995), some critics and readers found even more explicit and offensive. Human Smoke (2008), which had nothing to do with sex, nonetheless managed to annoy reviewers for a different reason. The book deals with the causes of World War II and is made up of hundreds of short entries from The New York Times, official documents, private diaries, and letters arranged in chronological order, showing that contrary to what most of us believe, powerful Americans and Britons were eager to start the war with Germany and Japan.

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