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.