The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
Simon and Schuster, 2009
Paul Chowder, poet and narrator of Nicholson Baker's novel The Anthologist, is trying to write an introduction to his forthcoming anthology of poetry Only Rhyme. Unfortunately, he is unable to say exactly why rhyme is important, and so like anyone with a seemingly impossible task, he procrastinates. He buys a tablecloth. He washes his dog. He pines over his now estranged girlfriend, Roz. He reads. He changes where he works. And in the process he thinks a lot about poetry, both rhyming and non-rhyming. Although a work of prose fiction, this book is likely to be of interest to many poets and readers of poetry.
What qualifies Baker to discuss poetry? Why should we consider his views as anything outside the fictional thoughts of his character? Firstly, this is not Baker's only attempt at literary criticism. Early in his career, he published U and I, his memoir about his obsession with John Updike. While the book was as much about Baker as Updike, it did reveal Baker's ability to consider literature from an intimate perspective, a perspective which is appropriate to a study of poetry. Furthermore, there is Baker's famous attention to minutiae, again which serves him well in the world of meter and rhyme. For the kind of case he's making, his is a mind very much suited to the task.
Baker has certainly applied his imaginative and critical faculties in the creation of Chowder and Chowder's conundrum. Baker shows an intimacy with poetry's practitioners and currents, its modes and forms, that suggests more than incidental observation. Reading the sections on poetic meter, in particular, is to encounter both an enthusiasm and empathy for the subject. The case Baker makes does not read as though he is a mere casual reader.
So what qualifies Baker's character Paul Chowder for the task? We know he's a poet because he tells us. He also tells us that he is a poet of little renown. Some of his poems have appeared in The New Yorker, some have been rejected. He has three collections, though none stirred up that much interest. He could be a poetic everyman. Not so successful to disqualify him from connecting with other poets, and not so unsuccessful that we would ignore what he says. Of his poetry, he states that most of it is in free-verse, even though he's writing an introduction for an anthology of rhyming verse. In fiction, we have come to expect this tension between endeavour and motives. It forces us, the readers, to ask questions and seek a resolution. However, it also places limitations on how far the author can go with those ideas when these ideas are in the service of character and narrative.
Two examples of Chowder's poems appear. One is a very rough attempt at rhyme. The second, also a draft, could be more typical since he reads a revised version at a poetry reading. The poem is about Roz wearing white pants:
I walked upstairs behind her
Staring at her stitched seams
Normally she wore black pants
But it was the last day of the year
That she would wear the white ones
So she did.
It has the characteristics of Baker, the attention to small detail, the everyday voyeurism, the appreciation of personal ritual. It also has quite a distinct meter, something which is quite important to Chowder. But it doesn't grab the reader. It seems a little drab. Baker said in an interview that he wrote about twenty poems in the voice of Chowder and, in his own words, they were not ‘all that good – in fact some were embarrassing.' While it might be easy to see why, it could be just as easy to overlook Baker's point, which is that Chowder is not a good poet, not a dreadful one, but one who fails to measure up to his own standards. The reason for Chowder's failure is a failure of form.
‘I always secretly want it to rhyme,' Chowder confesses, as though rhyme has become something smutty, dirty. In current poetry, non-rhyming free verse certainly dominates, and perhaps he feels his admission is shared by other poets. This is not simple provocation. Chowder/Baker longs for rhyme because it is at the very heart of form.
In what is a very lyrical defence of rhyme he says,‘[T]ulips rhyme. One tulip leaf goes this way, and the other tulip leaf goes that way. Their forms talk to each other. There's symmetry. There's a central stalk, and there's mirroring. Most definitely the tulips rhyme. Nature is full of rhymes.' In essence, he's talking about complements and how form strives for these, for balance. Rhyme gives the language shape.
From this shape, emerges meter. Meter may not need rhyme and there are many examples of clearly metrical non-rhyming poetry, (from Milton to Auden), but for Chowder / Baker the former implies the latter because rhyme rounds-off the lines, so emphasizing the meter and meter is the key to poetry. ‘The four beat line is the soul of English poetry,' Chowder says. If rhyme gives the poem form, the meter, in the eyes or ears of Chowder/Baker, is the driver and its judicious use makes poetry an art.
You would think that based on his view on the centrality of meter and rhyme to poetry Chowder would be hostile to free verse. On the contrary, he states that most of his work falls into this category, a fact he acknowledges despairingly. Furthermore, he is a great admirer of W. S. Merwin's free-verse, particularly his collection The Vixen. He even goes to say that non-rhyme was ‘a useful mistake, a beautiful mistake, because it taught us new things. It loosened people up and made other discoveries possible.'
And from where did this mistake arise? Partly from translation, specifically non-rhyming metered translation. ‘The death of rhyme is really all about translation. Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet voiced balladeer.' It is from this he expounds his most interesting idea, which is modern poetry stemmed from the prose translation of Poe into French, which inspired the symbolists, whose prose translations in English in turn inspired the English modernists and further marginalised poetic form. The other culprit is rhyme itself. Baker as Chowder says that there was simply too much of it. He likens rhyme to the fertiliser liberally applied to his neighbour's healthy lawn. The lawn is once again ‘green and perfect. Poetry is still recovering from Swinburne.' There seems to be a contradiction here. On one hand, a hearkening for form and acknowledgement of its excess as well as an appreciation of formlessness, while rejecting the damage it has wrought.
This contradiction is never reconciled intellectually. If it is reconciled at all, it is only as we accept Chowder as a character and accept his inconsistencies as part of his nature. Here in lies some the limitations of a novel for this task because the thoughts are subsumed to the character's story and cannot be fully explored. Furthermore, much of the argumentation is personal. Certainly, when Chowder says that Edward Lear's poem ‘The Pelican Chorus' was ‘the first to give [him] the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry', it sounds very persuasive. However, it is just as easy for us to say, ‘But Paul. The poem left me cold.'
Could Baker's reason for the use of the novel be defensive? As he is neither a poet nor literary critic, his musings on rhyme can be defended as him merely being in character. Yet, too much of Baker moves behind Chowder. He might not be a practitioner, but Baker isn't completely unfamiliar with poetry either. The more likely reason is that novel has allowed Baker to personalise those thoughts, bring the poetry closer to life and thus clandestinely introduce these arguments to a wider audience who may develop them further.