In Which Critics Annoy Me

I wonder if there is any nicer experience than picking up a book that you have no great expectations for and finding that you have a little jewel in your hands? That’s what happened to me with Nicholson Baker’s latest book, The Anthologist. The story is simplicity itself: it’s about Paul Chowder, a middle-aged, mildly successful poet who is struggling (and mostly failing) to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. He spends his days tidying up the barn in which he is not working, helping his neighbours put down a pine floor and missing his girlfriend, Roz, who moved out because she couldn’t stand his procrastination. But most of what he does is think about poetry, and specifically, how it works. His anthology is entitled Only Rhyme, and the gentle, amusing stream of Paul’s narrative chat is cunningly put to the service of reminding us why meter and rhyme can be so delightfully effective in poetry, in an era in which free verse seems to have come to dominate.

If that sounds in any way elitist or dull, think twice; what makes this book a real winner is the presence of the most endearing narrative voice I have read in a long, long time. Paul brings poetry to life by all kinds of means, brief, funny, anecdotal biographies of poets, typographical quirks to help us read and hear the beats in a line, his own stories of happy or unhappy creativity, moments of being crystallized around some of his favourite lines. The voice (and it really is a voice, like the most charming, relaxed conversation) rambles and topics succeed one another sometimes with logic and sometimes without. But it all holds together like a spider’s web, or even like a poem, where the gaps and gestures contain us just as much as the words.

I was particularly impressed because I have never been a big poetry reader, and on the whole had remained unconvinced about the beauty of rhyme. I avoided having to teach all that kind of thing at university because I’d never really understood meter or mastered even a third of the terms that seem necessary to describe it. By the end of the book, I really grasped what the narrator was saying and had some genuine insight into how rhyme works. Here’s a bit I liked:

‘Crying is a good thing. And rhyming and weeping – there are obvious linkages between the two. When you listen to a child cry, he cries in meter. When you’re an adult, you don’t sob quite that way. But when you’re a little kid, you go, “Ih-hih-hih-hih, ih-hih-hih-hih.” You actually cry in duple meter.

‘Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We’ve got to face that. And if that’s trye, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die. The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It’s like chain-smoking – you light one line with the glowing ember of the last.’

So what grabs us in poetry, the musicality of it, the rhythm of it, is something that corresponds to the natural rhythms that we experience in the body. We respond to poetry with parts of us that are primitive and innate – and that’s a nice thought when for most people poetry looks too ‘intellectually hard’ to speak to them.  Paul Chowder wants us to feel the way that poetry can be a full body experience, rhymed poetry most obviously so.

Having finished the book, I decided to go online and check out some of the reviews of it, and I was surprised to find that while most were complimentary, the reviewers in every case could not help but quibble with the account of poetry that the narrator puts forward. Now bear in mind that this is a first-person narrative and Nicholson Baker could not possibly have done more to make it evidently subjective. The New York Times was probably the best review, as did love the book and pointed out that you didn’t have to agree with all of the narrator’s opinions, they were there to be enjoyed and considered. But the writer could not help but emphasize his superior knowledge of the poetry world by complaining that Baker had only mentioned The New Yorker when there were all kinds of other literary journals that were more important for poetry. The Washington Post whined that ‘Chowder focuses on the mechanics of poetry and neglects what Emerson called “lustres,” sparky images and aphorisms that pierce the seal set on the human spirit by time and care. “A snowflake will go through a pine board, if projected with force enough,” Emerson wrote, and while meter may account for the force in much poetry, the snowflake is just as necessary.’ At which point I began to feel a bit annoyed. On the contrary, Chowder does pick out lines that he loves, but the POINT of his anthology is to champion rhyme, when it has recently been neglected, so that’s what he spends most of his time talking about. Then our dear old Telegraph really tipped me over the edge by niggling with the account of iambic pentameter (which the narrator tells us is a contentious subject). ‘Chowder ignores dramatic verse completely and only mentions Milton once, without considering what that king of enjambement was up to.’ And then drops into horrible patronizing: ‘But you do commit that most forgivable of crimes, which is to let the music of the language get in the way of what that language is actually saying. You even have a fetishistic way of dwelling on syllables.’ At which point I nearly fell off my chair with irritation and started yelling in my head IT’S A WORK OF FICTION, NOT AN ACADEMIC TREATISE! THE NARRATOR IS NOT INTENDING TO COVER THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF POETRY!!

It seemed to me that these reviewers, (who clearly fancied themselves as experts on poetry one and all) were entirely missing the point of The Anthologist. I thought it had performed a minor miracle of writing about poetry, even about technical aspects of poetry, in a way that was deeply compelling, engaging, accessible and fun. It had made me want to rush out and buy a ton of poetry anthologies. And it occurred to me that if poetry is a diminishing speck on the literary horizon these days, if few people read it and think about it, it’s because critics have failed to do their job of providing a sufficiently interesting and engaging conversation about poetry. The artwork is only half of the equation, always. The other half, just as important, is the reception, the way we respond to it and talk about it and thereby stitch it into our world. If poetry critics can only quibble over the complexities of iambic pentameters, if they cannot resist being picky and superior, then what is the average reader to think? Two things: 1) I’m not intellectual enough for this conversation and 2) I don’t see how this relates to my life. Whereas what Baker’s novel does brilliantly is show how poetry is an extension of some of the most profound, most moving, moments of existence. And that really is a conversation worth having.

22 thoughts on “In Which Critics Annoy Me

  1. I have Smoke by Baker on my shelf at home but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I read reviews of this one and was a bit put off. I’ve never managed to develop a deep understanding of poetry and have avoided it, much like you have described here. Your review makes me think that this is just the sort of book I ought to read and I will probably do exactly as you have done and want to rush out and read poetry.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one–particuly your last two points! I read this earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely–I, who can not bring myself to open a book of poetry, no matter how good my intentions are. Baker made it all very accessible and more importantly fun–but maybe poetry isn’t meant to be fun? Sometimes I think critics take books way too seriously sometimes (or maybe I don’t take them seriously enough?), but they seem to be nitpicking in this case. If a reader ends up wanting to buy an armful of poetry books (and I did buy a biography of Edna St Vincent Millay after reading this book) then I think Baker might be very pleased indeed.

  3. I’m not a big poetry fan, but this book intrigues me. [Admittedly, I like many pieces of poetry but lack the intellectual understanding of the ins and outs of the art to have an apt conversation about it.] What the critics did to this work sounds very unfortunate and yet predictable. To strive for objective criticism a critic should start evaluating the work for itself and not be invested in proving themselves to be vastly superior in knowledge. Only makes the critic look bad/unreliable while the work at least gets some air time. Well, I hope for that anyway as I simply don’t pay attention to any reviewer who does what you mentioned here.

  4. I agree Litlove, this was a pleasant suprise for me as an ambivalent poetry reader. I thought Baker got Chowder’s voice just right- charming, informed and opinionated. I finished it resolved to make an effort to engage with poetry.

    Its tone reminded me of Stephen Fry’s The Ode less travelled, which is an accesible and entertaining poetry primer I’d recommend.

  5. I’ve had this on my list for some time, and it really does sound like something I’d enjoy. I’ve fallen out of the poetry habit, partly because I think I spent too much time trying to “analyze” and “understand” rather than to merely enjoy. For some reason, I have no problem letting a novel carry me along and then doing whatever analytical work I feel like doing (or not) after I’m done, but with poetry, I think I’m supposed to pick at it and that I haven’t “read it properly” if I haven’t. My church book group is reading Paradise Lost right now, and one of the members mentioned how much more exciting the poem is when you read it aloud. She may have a point–such reading would allow you to experience the pleasing rhythms without having to look for them.

    And I will second Sarah’s suggestion of Stephen Fry’s book. Incredibly entertaining and great at sorting how why meter, rhyme, etc., are important–and how they make poetry fun.

  6. Yaaaaaay!!! I’m glad you like this book so much because I love Baker and try to get people to read him whenever I can. I agree that this book is a minor miracle in the way it makes the technical aspects of poetry so interesting. The voice is just perfect — smart and funny in an entirely disarming way. Stupid critics.

  7. I need to read this book right now! I need a counterpoint to all the crime novels I’m immersing myself in, and I also love Nicholson Baker.

    I think you’re pointing to a certain strata of literati (criterati) who no longer know how to read a book for the pure pleasure of it.

  8. I absolutely love your rage against these reviewers. I was planning to read this already, because I really like Baker and had seen he had a new one out, but you’ve convinced me.

  9. I’ve never heard of this author, but the book sounds interesting. I’m very fond of rhyming poetry, even though I know it’s not particularly fashionable to be. :p

    Only I cannot stop myself from taking issue with this: “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We’ve got to face that. And if that’s true, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die.” I get really frustrated with this notion that antidepressants completely stop you from feeling sad emotions. Some antipsychotics, maybe, but not antidepressants. (End rant from a therapist’s kid. :p)

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  11. Finding a gem when one doesn’t expect it (although we always hope for it, don’t we?) gladdens the heart. Like the day I found a perfect conch shell on the beach. No cracks, no broken bits. It sits on a bookshelf as a reminder of that day. Simple and perfect. A book can be like that as well. By the way, I’ve been catching up on posts and loved your preceding one about the writing life. I’ve printed it out to read in concert with Doctordi’s October article for Varuna.

  12. I remember when Danielle and Dorothy read this and I have a copy of it sitting on my have-to-read-soon pile. I say pooh on the critics who tried to make the book a treatise on poetry. I think it is because of them that a lot of people who would love poetry don’t want to give it a whirl. Baker probably does more for poetry with his one novel than many of the critics have done for it in their whole careers.

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  14. I’ve stopped reading reviews of everything, LL. They were ruining too much for me, right across the board, and I guess I decided I’d much rather make mistakes than miss the experience of discovery altogether.

  15. Kathleen – this turns out to be the first Baker book I’ve read (I thought I’d read another but it turns out, no) and it certainly won’t be the last. I really loved his style. I would never have thought a novel could convince me to read more poetry, but this one did – I’d love to know how you get on with it.

    Danielle – I think critics take themselves far too seriously! And I think they neglect to say the obvious, so caught up are they in chasing down little points where they feel superior (boo! don’t like that attitude). If you liked this book, I’d really recommend Against Oblivion by Ian Hamilton. He features about 20 or so modern poets, three pages of biography on each followed up with one of their best poems. I loved that book too, so compact, so accessible, such an easy introduction. I like poetry when I get into it, but I need help with that!

    Kimberley – quite right, too. I strongly feel that books should be measured against their genre and bearing in mind the things they are obviously hoping to do. To be fair, all the reviews (well apart from the Telegraph one) praised the novel highly, but they just could not resist the urge to show off their own knowledge and it DID make them look silly, I think! And I also think that it’s fine to talk about poetry with no specialised knowledge – that it’s perfectly valid to speak just of the emotions it arouses, or the mental images it evokes. I think critics try TOO hard with poetry, and that distorts its effects.

    Sarah – I’m delighted you enjoyed this too, and I will certainly look out the Fry book. I’d heard of it but have never read it.

    Lilian – I’d love to know what you make of it! As a writer, I feel sure you will relate on a number of levels!

    Teresa – I do know just what you mean. In fact, it’s only poems that rhyme where I do allow myself to sit back and just listen. Anne Sexton’s set of lyric rewrites of fairy tales, Transformations, I think it’s called, are just fabulous for that. Otherwise I also tend to analyse them to death, and they emerge from that definitely the worse for wear! And thank you for another vote for Stephen Fry – I will certainly get hold of it.

    Dorothy – I thought I recalled your review of this – didn’t Hobgoblin give you the book for your birthday or something? I really loved it, and I am so going to read more Nicholson Baker now!

    Charlotte – too true, my friend! And yet without that pleasure, what is there? I really think you’ll enjoy this one if you like Baker already. It is just the loveliest, most wonderful voice.

    Verbivore – ooh I do so want to know what you think of it! And I don’t get mad often, but somehow silly critics are a perfectly fair target. I don’t feel at all guilty. 🙂

    Jenny – oh I think he means just don’t give drugs that DO prevent people from weeping. It probably sounds odd out of context like that – and after all, not all poetry follows the rhythms of sobbing, so it’s one of those generalised statements that can sound great in the flow but perhaps doesn’t do to pick apart. But I know what you mean – some things can just fall on a person wrong.

    Grad – that shell sounds wonderful, and how delighted you must have been to find it! Good books abound, but perfect shells are rarer.

    Stefanie – I couldn’t agree more! I really think it’s the job of the critic not simply to evaluate the work, but to do so in a way that furthers the conversation about art and life. Well anyway, that’s what interests me!

    ds – I get the nasty feeling that they WERE poets, which was why they were exactly the wrong people to review the book. It’s a novel that encourages the learner, not a book that picks fights with experts. But DO read it, it is charming.

    Doctordi – well I have every sympathy with that attitude. I get the vast majority of my recommendations from bloggers now and don’t read many journalistic reviews. And when I do, I see why!

    Mary – oh I do hope so much that you enjoy it! I’d love to know what you think.

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