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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.

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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