One of the many questions raised by Nicholson Baker’s delightful, yet problematic, 2009 novel is how much does its view of poetry belong to its neurotic anthologist, Paul Chowder, and how much to the author himself? Baker – or Baker’s character – promotes a pantheon of tired, mid-century, all-white American poetry that’s straight out of another anthology. I’m thinking of Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, but also Hall, Pack and Simpson’s New Poets of America and Britain.
In other words, the kind of poets and poetry The Anthologist endorses (Bogan, Nemerov, Moss), with a great deal of nostalgic fanfare, are the kind the editors of “The New Yorker” have made safe for consumption. ("The New Yorker" itself gets frequent mention as a part of a prestige name-checking schtick that seems half-put on, half homage, while its former poetry editor, Alice Quinn, the doyenne of the soporific, is praised as “the magnificent Alice!” with no apparent trace of irony).
Conspicuously absent so far (I’m only 60 pages in, not counting some leapfrogging about) is any kind of poetry associated with the avant-garde or the New American Poetry. The sole exception has been Mina Loy. The Anthologist, in other words, and I hate to put it this way, is a paean to what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude and its hallowed tradition of being, well, hallowed.
Now the SoQ is a term of decidedly Manichean proportions. As a category for describing the faultlines in American poetry between modernism and anti-modernism, the revolution of the word and the counter-revolution, it lacks in subtlety what it makes up for in paranoia and shrillness. Yet all too often Silliman’s tilting is spot-on. And for Baker’s novel, I think it’s case of “if the shoe fits…”
A brief list of poets mentioned as far as I’ve read include, in addition to those above: Scott, Shelley, Longfellow, Tennyson, Hardy, Yeats, Roethke, Berryman, Millay, Amy Lowell, Teasdale, Auden, Bishop, Ted Hughes, Wendy Cope, James Fenton, and James Wright. Square as square can be. Pound and Marinetti are mentioned only pour scorn on them.
It’s not that I have a personal quarrel to pick with any of these poets. Or that many of them haven’t given me enormous pleasure. Shelley and Yeats especially, and Berryman to a lesser extent. But to have no Blake, no Whitman? (No Dickinson, either, but I’m sure she’s waiting in the wings). There’s no Stein, Zukofsky, Williams (yet), Oppen, Niedecker, Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Ginsberg (yet), Baraka, Brooks, or Ashbery. And surprisingly, no Creeley, who was a master of the four-beat line. In other words, nothing smacking of linguistic complexity or heterodoxy; nothing partaking of the mystic, the mythic, the transpersonal; nothing to detract from the notion that a poem is simply a tidy container of concisely reported minor personal experience (some observations capped by an epiphany) anchored in a fixed (not to say ossified) point of view; that it’s about, to use an example Chowder offers, an inchworm, or a flying spoon. The idea here is that a poem is really a story, (“prose in slow motion”) with some of the narrative links left out.
And that is certainly one model of what poetry is and not necessarily a poor one. Great poems have been written in this model. It would take someone far more churlish than I to denounce the beauty of Housman’s “white in the moon the long road lies,” a line of surpassing grace and simplicity which Chowder quotes with approval. But Michael Palmer’s “you can bring down a house with sound” is beautiful, too. One difference is that Housman’s delicate song is about the longing for an absent love, whereas Palmer is writing an elegy that takes apart some pre-conceived notions of how language works, doing it in a way that rejects the patient building of one line on top of another in perfect sequence, accruing power through juxtaposition rather than hypotactical jointure. The ancient power of the single great line endures, yes, because metrical language endures. But Chowder – or is it Baker? – turns it into the kind of fetish the New Critics once burned their profane cigars to.
Yes, the beat is the message, as Fanny Howe writes in her elegy for Creeley. Chowder gets it frustratingly right and wrong at the same time when he chidingly relates his anecdote about Ginsberg at Naropa denouncing traditional metrics in favor of a liberated, Olsonian model in which “the rhythm of poetry is the rhythm of the body.” As one character advises Chowder, who’s struggling with his introduction to the anthology: “People love neurobiological explanations.” The line comes off as a amusing put-down of trendiness. Yet this is exactly what the bedeviled narrator ends up doing over the course of the novel, passionately explaining how rhyme is a form of poetic dopamine (his riff on sobbing reminds me of Donald Hall’s classic essay, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird”).
This argument is not without merit, but it ends up pathologizing rhyme rather than identifying how its consolations derive from a principle of symmetry and correspondence, how their music provides a cognitive patterning that may be part of our DNA but whose larger meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness. What starts off as a promising account of rhyme’s primal satisfactions ends up strained and pedestrian. The better analogy here would be to music, not the crossword.
Even the creakiest prosody manuals advance some form of a neurobiological account of meter and rhyme that is ultimately rooted in the body. Chowder/Baker’s view of rhyme and the four-stress line wants to be restorative, yet its very narrowness constricts the potential for how a poem can resist and subvert these models in powerful ways to produce a surprising music.
One of the problems with having a problem with The Anthologist is that when it’s not peddling a lame model of poetics, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Baker is able to have his cake and eat it, too, holding up the earnest, yet hapless, Chowder for some light-hearted ridicule, while continually affirming him as a figure of genuine endearment. The novel’s view of poetry is antique, hopelessly mired in prosody textbooks of the 1950s, yet the pleasure it takes from poetry is genuine.
The other problem with the novel is a familiar one: trying to determine the reliability of its man-child, doofus narrator. What do we know about him? He’s been published in “The New Yorker.” He’s won a “Gugg,” as he calls it. He’s been anthologized himself. By his own admission he’s a lousy teacher. And he goes through a lot of the inane half-ass rituals all writers perform in the daily grind of finding a way into language. This is where most of the comedy comes in. Baker’s feel, his ear I almost want to say, for the obsessive micrologies of the writing life is hilarious.
But here’s where some of the confusion also comes in: Baker achieves many of his daffy moments by having Chowder ramble amiably on about poetry in a semi-daft, semi-serious way the upshot of which is that nothing is at stake spiritually or culturally. The closest he gets is to compare poetry to some kind of advanced crossword puzzle. It should be said that part of the pathos, though that's probably too strong a word, comes from Chowder's defense, not just of rhyme, but of poets like Bogan and Moss whom Baker surely knows are out-of-fashion. So is the joke on poetry, then?
Nowhere do we read about poetry as negation, about its tremendous power of disruption. Modernism appears to have not taken place at all, except as some minor wayward backwater exercise of a few kooks like Pound, Olson and Ginsberg. For Chowder, and presumably Baker as well, the Great Tradition in poetry is Apollonian; unyieldingly affirmative of such shibboleths as the eternal human spirit.
So who’s the joke on? On poor Paul Chowder, the faux naïf whose mixture of lovable zeal and irredeemable mediocrity suggests an imperfect character who confirms Ford Maddox Ford’s grim, but accurate, pronouncement that most artists are born to fill the graveyards? Or is it on the reader, who follows this fool for poetry love through one comic pratfall after another, discerning a kind of baseline nobility, while swallowing whole his gushy valentine to the four-beat line and the power of rhyme?
As a spoof of the writing life and an homage to the sonorous music of the Grand Tradition Itself, The Anthologist proves charming and seductive. (Did I mention there's also a plot? Something to do with getting back with an old girlfriend). As an apologia for the conservative virtues of meter, it makes a somewhat embarrassing and naively reductive case for timeless, essential values in “verse.” Or worse.