Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Poetry by the Foot: A Review of Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist"

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Jeff Charis-Carlson writes in from Iowa City, Iowa, where he is still the Opinion Page editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Among other things, he's been working hard to get poetry back where it belongs: in newspapers.

When I made it through the first chapter of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, my main questions were:

* If I were teaching a course on prosody, would I have my students read this novel at the beginning of the semester, so they would be exposed early on to the idea that someone could take all these terms and techniques so personally?

* Or would I wait until the end of the course, so the students would understand fully the poetic theories espoused by the novel’s main character, Paul Chowder, and thus be inspired not only to write their own poetry, but also to come up with their own ideas about how poetry works and why it matters?

As I kept reading, however, I eventually started to question just how advanced my students would have to be if they were going to appreciate The Anthologist as a text at all.

For they would already have to be invested in the notion of iambic pentameter as a lofty poetic form if they were going to be sufficiently intrigued by Chowder’s pet theory that pentameter isn’t about a five-beat line at all. (It’s really about a three-beat waltz with rests on the end of every line. That’s why Chowder says the enjambments give him the “willies.”) And they already would need to worship at the altar of modernist and postmodernist obscurity and indeterminacy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t grasp the real radicalism behind the straightforward connection Chowder draws between music and poetry—how the heavy beats that come with rhyme echo in the silent rests that end each line.

Chowder, and presumably Baker, takes to task any academic who tries to complicate this holy trinity of poetry—rhyme, rhythm and rest. He also praises the casual reader of poetry and pop-music for having a much better sense of meter than…well…anyone taking a poetry class at the college level (a fact I can attest to after teaching my share of Interpretation of Literature classes).

“The real basis for English poetry is in this walking rhythm right here,” Chowder writes as he tries to explain the good news of his gospel—true poetic freedom from the inscrutable and artificial difficulty found in most contemporary free verse.

But Chowder, while a charismatic evangelist, is also a buffoon. Before he can give his intended example from Edward Lear’s “The Pelican Chorus,” he clumsily drops the Sharpie he was going to use to underline the accents.

Chowder is also a buffoon in his personal and professional life. His girlfriend leaves him and his publisher starts hounding him for much the same reason: he can’t seem to finish the poetic anthology he is amassing throughout the novel. Chowder is quick to advise would-be poets against waiting until they can write a whole poem in one sitting—lest they never write the poem at all—yet he is perpetually delaying writing the introduction to his planned anthology. And even if he were to finish, the publishing of this book would do nothing to improve the quality of Chowder’s life, nor would it enhance his relationship with anyone—or anything—other than poetry.

The conceit, of course (if Chowder would allow me to use that more academic sounding term rather than just say, “The joke, of course...”) is that Chowder’s first chapter functions as the very introduction that he views as such an impossible task. Readers, even students in prosody classes, quickly recognize that Chowder is speaking from experience when he writes, “Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s ‘Best American Poetry’ and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.”

And Baker, being a careful stylist, manages to imbue Chowder’s celebrated “walking rhythm” into the very sentence announcing it: “The real basis for English poetry is in this walking rhythm right here.” Although there is no rhyme, Chowder’s prose above enacts that rhythm; reading the sentence aloud in four-four time requires a syncopation that allows the speaker to slip and slide through individual syllables so long as the whole thing ends on the necessary rest.

And that blend of sophistication and buffoonery is exactly why The Anthologist would be so dangerous to use as a text for a course in which the bulk of students are casual readers of poetry and pop songs. Because Chowder is such a buffoon, student readers couldn't really be sure the degree to which he is uttering poetic truth and the degree to which his poetic theories are used to further characterize him as a buffoon. Because most of the students would be desperate for some sort of academic validation of their poetry, they'd have no choice but to start arguing against Chowder, hoping that Baker—the author—is secretly on their side, snickering at anyone who takes Chowder’s pronouncements at face value.

A good teacher—or a good reviewer—can only respond to such arguments by asking, “Who cares if Baker agrees with Chowder or not?” After all, this call for clarity in contemporary poetry is long overdue. American poetry, as a whole, would improve greatly if poets actually could read Chowder’s anthology and put his poetic theories into practice. Which, of course, they can’t do, because it exists only in fiction.