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Nicholson Baker Talks Poetry

Can a novel capture contemporary poetry's (dour, curmudgeonly) zeitgeist?
Nicholson Baker

“Civilization ought to be superficially pigheaded, suspicious of all subversion, so that rarity can leap in with her accordion and startle the anatomy lesson,” Nicholson Baker wrote in his 1984 essay “Rarity.” Though it wasn’t written about poetry, in the context of verse this sentiment sounds like an argument for a healthy aesthetic conservatism that Paul Chowder—the protagonist of Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist—would make.

Chowder is a minor poet. He writes forgettable verse. His heart has recently been shattered by a lover. He is deeply enamored of rhyme and meter. He is suspicious of the waves of free verse that have flooded the last one hundred years of literary history. Great poetry with a wicked sense of meter, believes Chowder, comes along only rarely these days.

Paul Chowder, you see, is a hunter, a scout, a tracker of poems. He is an anthologist, and according to him an anthologist—spry cousin of the genealogist, distant relative of the librarian, friend of the collector—is “a lost soul who turned in despair to the publishing of other people’s work.” The novel that unfolds centers on Chowder’s quest to finish a long-overdue introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry he’s editing.

Baker’s book is three parts narrative and one part manifesto. But as Chowder searches for a few precious words on a topic dear to him, as he digresses for us into daydreams about his favorite poets, as he expounds on the need for the production of many bad poems in order to generate that one gem, the novel that takes form feels organic, more like a conversation than a poetics lesson.

I called Nick at his home in Maine to have a conversation about all this. What follows is what followed.

Jesse Nathan: Why a novel?

Nicholson Baker: Because some lines of poetry make me happy. How do you capture that pleasure? One way is to write an appreciation of a particular poem, but that doesn’t really do it. A novel lets you write sloppily about the things you love. You can be as selective as you want to. It’s very freeing, and it’s truer to the way poems live in the mind. Novels are good at hope and doubt and the kind of inner theorizing that we do all the time without being too deliberate about it.

JN: The unavoidable issue for me here is how we talk about the arguments Paul Chowder advances regarding poetry. Should I presume Paul Chowder is sitting there on your shoulder, and can tell you what he would say? Or can I speak to Paul Chowder directly?

NB: Let me roll my eyes back in my head and get into character. No, I grew a bigger beard in order to do this book, and I bought some Sharpies and an easel and a pad of paper. I wanted to be a little different for a while, but not that different. Paul’s life situation is not the same as mine—I’ve got a wife and children—but I do live in a house with a barn, and I did write some of the book up in the barn, singing and finding tunes for lines of poetry. Chowder writes what he calls “plums”—i.e., free verse—but he wishes he was born a rhymer. That’s true of me, too. He’s got some metrical notions. He likes finding where the stresses fall. At the same time, he has a life that’s entered a phase of minor crisis. He’s not sure that what he’s done is any good. The ups and downs of his life pull from him some of what he knows. That’s how it works for me.

JN: This book is grounded in the notion that poetry is a lived-with thing, that poems are these nuggets you can carry around in your head. Random situations will bring a line bubbling out from some seemingly far-flung corner of the brain. Poetry is the art form you can carry in your head, and you can give it to somebody by opening your mouth and reciting, or you can say a line aloud to yourself in an empty hayloft. You can’t do that with any other art form.

NB: It’s true. You can’t carry around a Turner landscape and recite bits of it. You can hum a Brahms piano piece, but it isn’t the same. This is a beautiful feature of poetry. I know people who are master memorizers, who have thousands of lines of verse in their heads. In fact, when I was in college I decided I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to be stuffed with poems. I memorized a lot of Milton, some Spenser, some Stanley Kunitz, some Marvell, all of Dylan Thomas’s “Poem on His Birthday,” which I recited in his booming accent. That was probably the high point of my memorization. But those things have all moldered down. Now I have bits and pieces. It was useful to get the lines by heart, but in some ways they’re like gravestones: they’re better when the mosses and lichens have grown over and you can’t read them too clearly. They feel more a part of you then.

JN: Does Paul Chowder consider himself an expert on meter and rhyme?

NB: Paul’s a yearner, an amateur. He’s not a historian of poetry or a critic. But I think he’s kind of proud of what he says about iambic pentameter and the phantom beat—the empty shoe. And I think the way a working poet talks about poetry is sometimes a good way of looking back. Because if he’s damaged goods, if he’s a little bit worn and kind of middle-aged and wistful, he doesn’t really care about the latest poet or movement. He remembers his big enthusiasms from 20, 30 years ago. The history comes ladling up naturally.

JN: The way Paul Chowder would suddenly see legendary poets was, to me, a manifestation of the idea of a poet carrying poetry around in his head. Except it goes even further with Paul. Not only does he carry the poems around in his head, but he also carries the poets around in his head; he carries their stories and histories. And then he actually hallucinates them sometimes.

NB: I wrote those scenes because there are times when you want so badly to be in the same room with somebody like Louise Bogan or Ted Roethke or Poe. I mean, Poe! I can’t believe that he’s dead. He’s too good and too strange to be dead. In those moments halfway between sleeping and waking, you sometimes make up little conversations with people you admire. So I put a few of those conversations in. Not too many, because you don’t want to go too far down that road.

JN: Paul Chowder says there’s too much poetry being written.

NB: It’s a feeling of simple unmanageability. So many poems every year. And the fearful onslaught of this much production, combined with the knowledge that you can’t possibly know where to find the gems, can be overwhelming. Hidden away in these tens of thousands of poems—that form a cresting wave that’s eternally tumbling over you—are the ones that will be in the anthologies of the future. They’re there but . . . but where? You need some time offyou’re splashing around. You need to find a rock and sit still for a bit.

JN: And convince everyone to stop writing for a year.

NB: Or maybe two. It’s always been a fantasy of mine that there could be a time-stoppage of literature, by common consent, so that everyone could ponder and breathe and catch up. But of course it’s impossible. This might be the very moment when some prodigy is on the verge of writing his or her great poem. We wouldn’t want to get in the way of that moment.

JN: Paul Chowder is alarmingly normal. Is he too normal to be a great poet?

NB: I think that’s his deep fear. And it’s certainlywell, how much to say?it has certainly been a worry of my own. His concern is basically that he doesn’t have enough dysfunctionality. He has overextended his lines of credit, but that’s just not enough. He thinks that to be a great poet, you have to have a life marred by some kind of great . . .

JN: Pain?

NB: Pain, yes. But of course he’s wrong. It’s a fallacy. Even if he were in terrible pain, it wouldn’t guarantee that he had what it took to be a great poet.

JN: “I am going to manacle your poor pliable brains with freedom”—this is a line in The Anthologist. It comes in the context of Paul’s concern that too many poets since the middle of the 20th century haven’t learned the basic rules of meter and rhyme. Too many American poets, he fears, don’t know the exhilarating sense of limitation provided by meter and rhyme.

NB: Well, we’ve been going through this, we’ve lived through this, and we’re still living in it. It’s more a matter of ear than of rules. That’s why Paul says: You already know, you just don’t know you know. In the ’70s, it was really very hard to be a metrical poet, although Charles Causley could do it. And when I was in fourth grade I was taught the new free-verse orthodoxy. That whole scene in The Anthologist is as close to what happened as I could make it, down to the sliding casters on the chairs and the desk, and the way the teacher wrote FREE VERSE in capital letters. One of Paul’s minor tragedies is he ends up telling his own students to avoid rhyme because he hates to hear them clunking around with the great forms. I wanted to look at all that with this book, but I didn’t want to be writing something that was too crudely a manifesto, because I don’t have anything to manifest. It’s just that sometimes you have these little bubbles of wishing that it could be—I don’t know—more like it was in the old anthologies. And then you look back at the old anthologies and say, “Wait a second, it wasn’t that goodmaybe it’s better now. Maybe the rejection of rhyme taught us things we wouldn’t have learned any other way.”

JN: The thing about Paul is, he likes rhyme and meter but he has room in his universe for a few beautiful, non-rhyming poems, too.

NB: More than a few, many. One of his favorite books is Merwin’s The Vixen. Paul is interested in this question of the lyric, certainly, and in why rhyming went away in published poetry so completely when it did. The oddness is that when we look back at the 20th century it can appear to be the most astonishingly rhyme-stuffed age in the history of humankind, because of Irving Berlin and Dorothy Fields and Hoagy Carmichael and all those song lyricists. They were all such intensive rhymers, internal and external, so brilliant and so resourceful—they pushed lyric poetry, as a form that wasn’t set to music, off to one side. It had to find its own way to sing. And it did. It became twisty and broken and chanting and dense and loose and all kinds of things—in reaction to the flood of rhyme in movie musicals and on records. Before the songwriters there was Swinburne. Paul feels Swinburne was an overfertilizing force. Too much chiming genius.

JN: Whyand again, maybe this is a question for amateur theorist Paul Chowder more than it’s a question for Nick Bakerdoes so much American verse sound like it’s been translated from another language?

NB: Maybe it’s that certain poems are looking for some identifying plumage in order to say, “I’m a poem. I may be read aloud and then you won’t be able to see any of the oddities of my layout, but still I am a poem, I am speaking to you with a recognizably translated-sounding accent.” It’s kind of what happened to Poe. Poe has got to be the most lyrical of all the 19th-century lyrical poets. If you read “The Bells” or “The Raven,” I mean, it’s just a chocolate-covered cherry of lyricism, it’s so sweet. And then people like Mallarmé seized on those poems and translated them into beautiful pure French prose, and that de-rhymed prose fed back into American Modernist poetry. I think it was Alice Corbin Henderson in Poetry, way back when, who first wrote about that phenomenon: Poe in French translation fueled Modernism in English.

JN: Has poetry been important to your novel-writing?

NB: Yes, poetry taught me to write prose. I don’t have the talent to be a poet, and that’s a disappointment, of course, but there are other ways to put truths down on the page. So I felt that I could recover from the shock. There was Howard Moss’s collected poems, and a great anthology that Moss edited called The New Yorker Book of Poems, a huge heavy yellow book, and Elizabeth Bishop’s paperback Collected Poems, also yellow. Stanley Kunitz’s collected poems had just come out, published by Atlantic/Little, Brown. I memorized the one that begins “An agitation of the air, / A perturbation of the light.” These are the things I sometimes carried around in my briefcase when I was 23—along with Thomas De Quincey and Boswell and Iris Murdoch and John Updike and other prose writers.

JN: Paul Chowder meditates on Marinetti, the Italian poet and the father of Futurism, and he describes the way Marinetti’s writing made a fetish of destruction, and how it emphasized the need for hardness and coldness and machinelike attitudes toward everything.

NB: Right, and this in turn so obviously overstimulated people like Ezra Pound and Benito Mussolini—and I’m sure you can take it too far almost instantly, because there are a lot of other reasons why huge, horrifying political movements arise, but at the very beginning there’s Marinetti. He’s manic and crazy and really an unpleasant man, but he’s so good at getting everyone excited about his manifesto that they start emulating him and writing their own manifestoes. That’s what Vorticism really was, the movement that Pound and Wyndham started up. Vorticism was just a slavish imitation of Futurism. They didn’t want to use the word Futurism because it was already used. They wanted to take the next step and prove they were even crueler and harder.

JN: Paul very directly traces Marinetti’s ideas to the rise of fascism.

NB: And in some ways the question about the violent beginnings of Modernism is answered directly, because during the war Ezra Pound went even further off the deep end than Marinetti ever had.

JN: What is the question at the beginning of Modernism?

NB: What’s the energy that motivates us? Is it the energy to make new, or is it simply the desire to break? If it’s just to break, if it’s just hostility, then it doesn’t get you very far. And in Marinetti and Pound there’s an awful lot of hostility, and a bossiness, of insisting that your way is the right way. A really good poem makes its case without making its case. It doesn’t insist that its way is the only way. That’s what’s so beautiful about “The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop. She just bends over the fish and looks it in the eye and then lets it go. Her description of what happened is just one description. She’s not insisting on something big. She’s not a manifesto writer. She’s a letter writer. Those are the two antipodes of Modernism, I think: manifestoes versus letters. A letter is anchored in a single day and is to a particular person and is not attempting to change anything.

  • Jesse Nathan’s poems have been published in jubilat, the Nation, the American Poetry Review, Gigantic, and many other magazines. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Dinner (Milk Machine, 2009). Nathan’s essays and journalism have appeared in Adbusters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Poetry International, McSweeney’s, the...


Nicholson Baker Talks Poetry

Can a novel capture contemporary poetry's (dour, curmudgeonly) zeitgeist?
  • Jesse Nathan’s poems have been published in jubilat, the Nation, the American Poetry Review, Gigantic, and many other magazines. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Dinner (Milk Machine, 2009). Nathan’s essays and journalism have appeared in Adbusters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Poetry International, McSweeney’s, the...

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