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The High-Wire Artist

It documents the little-known fact that civilians in German cities were being bombed with unconcealed malice long before the Nazis first attacked London. Baker quotes with approval Christopher Isherwood, who said after being told that refusing to fight the Nazis will allow our civilization to be destroyed, “Civilization dies anyhow of blood poisoning the moment it takes up its enemies’ weapons and exchanges crime for crime.” It raises the question—for which I don’t have an answer—whether it would have been possible to fight World War II without killing hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians. With all that in mind, Human Smoke ought to be read by everyone who either doesn’t know or has conveniently forgotten what bombing does to innocent people.

Baker’s new book, I expect, will also raise a few hackles. Although it deals ostensibly with English-language poetry generally, it goes against the grain of what most American poets have believed for over a century: that we live here in a new world, speak a different language than the one they do in England, and ought to be self-sufficient. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” Emerson asked in his essay “Nature.” Whatever one thinks of Waldo as a thinker is beside the point. This particular notion of his that truth has to be rediscovered again and again suits our circumstances. In a country of great empty spaces and many deracinated and lonely people, his call for self-reliance proved to be a dependable and lasting prescription for poetry, capable of reinventing itself in various ways in the work of poets who otherwise have had little in common.

Compared to British and European poets, we carry little cultural baggage. Each one of our great poets has started from close to scratch to render the world intelligible. We trust in personal experience as the foundation of all authentic knowledge. Our poets study what Nicholson Baker’s hero calls life’s “untold particulars” in full confidence that all the wisdom a man or a woman requires will be revealed to them as they do so. They think about language, form, and technique, but not much about tradition, at least not as something that deserves to be revered uncritically.

Chowder describes his predicament in the early pages of The Anthologist thus: “I’m basically willing to do anything,” he says, “to come up with a really good poem.” That’s his goal in life. He admires poets such as Elizabeth Bishop who have achieved the goal (he loves her “The Fish”), but unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet for him, though he has waited patiently, and sometimes impatiently. He has “striven” and written some acceptable poems—poems that were published in prestigious magazines—but as far as he is concerned, not a single really good poem.

He blames the age for it, as much as he blames his own inability. He doesn’t subscribe to the founding myth that American and British poetry belong to two distinct and rarely compatible worlds. We’ve rejected, he complains, five to six centuries of our glorious poetic tradition. He writes free verse poetry himself; but he no longer regards poems that do not rhyme as real poems. He calls them “plums” rather than poems, admitting that some of these plums can be very good, in fact, often better than anything else you might happen to read. He adores both W.S. Merwin’s and Mary Oliver’s free verse poems. Still, he has grown more and more convinced that for his poems to count as real poetry they have to rhyme. Nature is all about rhyme, he tells himself: tulip leaves rhyme; forms talk to one another; baby talk is full of rhyme. We learn language by matching sounds, by hearing what is similar and what is different. Rhyme, he argues, is how we learned to talk, so why did we eliminate something so fundamental to our psychic life? What happened, and when? Who are the bad guys whose names and evil deeds ought to be known to every student of poetry and aspiring poet?

The chief culprit, according to Chowder, was the leader of the futurist movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whom he accuses of marinating the twentieth century in his influence by claiming in his famous manifesto, published in 1909 in Le Figaro, that the old ways were no good. Futurism, with its worship of speed, violence, cruelty, and war, led directly to Mussolini, Hitler, and modern poetry. Most importantly, this machine-admiring bully who wanted to burn down museums had a son named Ezra Pound, whom Chowder holds responsible for spreading the plague of futurism. The other culprit for the death of rhyme, he says, was translation: “Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet-voiced balladeer from a faraway land.” It first happened in France when Poe’s rhyming poems were translated into exquisite rhymeless prose by Mallarmé and fed back into English and American poetry by the modernists in the thrall of the French.

This is pretty funny, but not even remotely true. Its thinking brings to mind right-wing conspiracy theories. If it hadn’t been for that one man and that one translation, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and other gullible American poets would have supposedly been emulating Swinburne and Tennyson. I once got into an argument with Joseph Brodsky, who half-seriously endorsed something along these lines, so Chowder is not alone in his folly.

This doesn’t make it any less ridiculous, since it conveniently manages to ignore the vast critique of religion, philosophy, history, economics, politics, and language in the last half of the nineteenth century and how it affected and changed all the arts. The notion that modernism was an imported fashion, an unnecessary break with the past, that no crises ever existed, that the outworn vocabulary and poetic formulas of the previous age would have continued to sound just fine in the mouths of twentieth-century men and women waiting in line to see a movie or go dancing on Saturday night, always struck me as laughable.

Of course, Chowder is a character in a book and not some academic unveiling his new revisionist theory of American literature at the annual MLA convention. Nonetheless, he represents the view of all those who pine for the days when rhyme reigned supreme and when poetry was something more than just “prose in slow motion,” as Chowder calls it. What these dyed-in-the-wool formalists won’t admit is that almost everything that was good in poetry in the last 150 years came out of a quarrel, not so much with tradition, but with some watered-down version of it that was popular among the salon poets at the time. Once that’s understood, it ought to be clear that no one who loves literature ever stops reading the old poets.

The fragments of poems Chowder quotes, like this couplet of Dryden’s he greatly admires, do not make the best case for what he claims has been woefully lost:

All human things are subject to decay
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.

T.S. Eliot’s comment seems relevant here: “When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent.”

What poets like him miss, as much as they miss rhyme, is the art of turning banal truisms into what sounds like great poetry. The insinuation that free verse is incapable of eloquence is simply not true, as Chowder implicitly makes clear in his remarks on Merwin and Bishop. Chowder doesn’t deny that Whitman was a genius; still, it distresses him that the poet once said that rhyming was intrinsically comic and used now only by inferior writers. “Rationalizing his own inabilities” is Chowder’s explanation.

As someone who taught school briefly, he is appalled by the willingness of teachers in creative writing classes to forgo rhyme and tell students that their poems need to be only “interesting,” “powerful,” and “nicely turned.” He is right to be upset about that. One would expect that teachers would want their students to know how the old poets wrote their poems, but, sadly, this is getting harder and harder to accomplish. The college students they are likely to teach are so thoroughly ignorant of literature of the previous centuries that teaching a Shakespeare sonnet, or one of the odes of John Keats, is not only close to impossible but a profoundly demoralizing experience.

What makes The Anthologist both funny and sad is that its narrator is aware that his passionately held beliefs are of no concern to his fellow Americans. A good part of the novel reads like a series of poetic manifestos and essays settling scores with his contemporaries and advancing his polemical views of prosody. He claims, for instance, that the metrists do not know what they are talking about when they talk about iambic pentameter, which according to Chowder is not made up of five feet, but of five feet and one empty shoe—i.e., a rest (unless the line happens to be forcibly enjambed). There’s more to his argument and plenty of examples, which, I suspect, even a reader who has zero knowledge of prosody ought to find interesting, since Baker is a master of making such esoteric subjects accessible. What I find touching about Chowder is that outwardly he is a perfectly conventional person who goes about his business without attracting any particular notice in his community, while secretly obsessing about these things and now and then even having visions:

Tennyson’s at the Salad Bar, making his way around, holding the chilled plastic plate, fumbling in his beard. Poet laureate of the British empire. Staring for a long time at the tub of bean salad. Corn salad or bean salad, which will it be today? “Into the valley of death, rode the six hundred!” Plop—beans. Pope’s there. Alexander Pope, the magpie trickster rockpolisher. Malevolently ladling the blue cheese at eye level. Taking care not to spill. Hey, Alex! You don’t want to talk to me? That’s fine.

As a portrait of a poet, The Anthologist is believable at first. I am sure many of us have met someone like Paul Chowder. Reading the book, some may imagine this is what a typical American poet is like, but that would be wide of the mark. What do Frost, Williams, Stevens, Eliot, Crane, Moore, Jeffers, and H.D. have in common besides writing poetry? Not much. If you were to introduce one of them to your grandma, would she know she was meeting a poet? I doubt it, unless Allen Ginsberg came along. If afterward she were to read their poetry and learn about their stormy or uneventful lives, she would be genuinely intrigued. This is a common reaction.

We ask ourselves, how could that stiff, dull, and awkward man compose such wildly imaginative poems, or that woman, who made a mess of her life, ever write so calmly and beautifully? The attraction of poems lies precisely in their mysterious and never-to-be-fully-understood origins. If they are honest, most poets will admit that they are clueless about how their best poems got written. They live in hope that their work will turn out to be better than anything they could think of and imagine at the time of writing, thanks to the intervention of some higher force, or just dumb luck.

I bring all this up because what I miss in The Anthologist is some examples of Chowder’s poetry. There are a few mediocre lines of an abandoned draft, but we have no idea what these poems Alice Quinn was supposedly publishing in The New Yorker are like. I understand the difficulty, and near impossibility, of composing a few even moderately interesting poems for a novel, but their absence leaves the portrait of the poet unfinished. Even a hint would have helped. Does he write about his daddy taking him fishing when he was a little boy? Seeing William Blake pump gas one snowy night in a truck stop in Maine? Pondering the decline of the American Empire while watching the sun set over an outhouse?

Chowder imagines that going back to rhyme would solve his problem as a poet, but knowing nothing about his poetry, it’s hard to say if this makes any sense. As it is, The Anthologist is an enjoyable novel with many shrewd and hilarious observations on poets and poetry that regretfully leaves out the most important thing about the hero, because knowing how good a poet he is would inevitably make us see both his life and some of his theories in a different light. Even more importantly, we would know whether Paul Chowder is a tragic or a comic figure.

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