By David Kirby
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster. 243 pp. $25
Poet Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist," has a vision of himself on a ladder: Above him are such recent poets laureate as Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, and below is a gaggle of energetic young writers. Off to the side, critic Helen Vendler films their ascent from her dirigible. The climb is steep, the air is cold, and it has taken Chowder years to reach the ladder's middle. "What if I just loosened my grip," he thinks, "and fell to one side, and just -- fffshhhooooow. Let go. Would that be such a bad thing?"
Mildly depressed Chowder behaves the way a lot of people think poets should. But he isn't suicidal. He simply thinks of his own self-inflicted death the way he thinks of everything else, and I do mean everything else. Like characters in such earlier Baker novels as "The Mezzanine" and "Room Temperature," Chowder isn't afraid of the trivial. Indeed, in this witty satire of literary culture, he confers importance on just about whatever pops into his mind by letting his thoughts billow and accumulate. As he natters on about the poor quality of today's brooms or what he'd do if he had a ponytail ("which I don't"), he grows on the reader the way Humbert Humbert or Holden Caulfield does. Or Stuart Smalley, the weepy optimist Al Franken played on "Saturday Night Live." Paul Chowder is endearingly goofy, in other words, like other fictional poets: Percy Dovetonsils, say, from the old "Ernie Kovacs Show," the martini-sipping versifier who lisped "Leslie the Mean Animal Trainer."
Problem is, Chowder isn't goofy enough. He's too linear to be a decent poet. He thinks he'll turn his life around if he can just write the introduction to an anthology called "Only Rhyme": He'll be paid $7,000 and possibly win back his estranged sweetheart, Roz, who's had it with his dithering.
What's odd about the project (other than that inflated fee, which is certain proof that "The Anthologist" isn't based on actual publishing practices) is that while Chowder is promoting rhyming poetry, he himself is a free-verse poet, or was, now that his publishing days are over. And his favorite poets -- Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop -- rely more on metaphor than rhyme.
Having forgotten how poetry works, he obsesses on its formal qualities. In true Baker style, pages of analysis ensue, replete with charts and even musical annotations. Readers are likely to think either, "You know, I kind of like this guy" or "What a chowderhead."
With the concentration of a mohel, 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.
Everyone has a poem-making mind, though, including Chowder: He observes that the grapevines and the brambles in his back yard have "a little gentlemen's agreement going, like the railroad companies and the real-estate speculators in the old days, whereby they progressed together up the hill and into the yard." And there's a mourning dove "who blows through his thumbs to make that sound." That's not poetry, but that's how poems begin. It's the way a child thinks, but Paul Chowder is all grown-up. "Why do I," he asks himself, "who can't make a couplet worth a roasted peanut these days, want poetry to do what I can't make it do?" Art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental, and Chowder proves that grown-ups don't like accidents.
Well, they like happy accidents. And he has one: At a conference in Switzerland, a stranger asks him how poems are written, and out of nowhere Chowder recalls a car trip in which tree shadows splash over a car's windshield. Bingo! That one little image jump-starts his versifying mind, and on the plane home he writes 23 poems. In his kitchen again, he sits down and writes the introduction to "Only Rhyme." He asks Roz to move back in. Suddenly, things are looking up.
Soon, Chowder is having another vision: "September comes, and sleepy undergraduates all over the country are walking their diagonal paths to writing classes with Only Rhyme zipped away in their backpacks." At last, he'll have power and influence, not to mention royalties. But you student poets out there, remember what Paul Chowder learns only at the end: A lot of poems rhyme, but the great ones don't only rhyme.
Kirby is co-editing with Barbara Hamby an anthology called "Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else."