March 17th, 2011 15:59 EST
Poetry is About Breath and Movement, Says Nicholson Baker In 'The Anthologist'
Nicholson Baker`s "The Anthologist"
(The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009, 243pp, $15)
I was afraid it would end too soon the moment I picked up Nicholson Baker`s The Anthologist. And it did, 243 pages later, all too soon.
If someone asked you for help understanding poetry you might send him to Mary Kinzie, or William M. Packard, or, if you wanted to dazzle him, R.P. Blackmur and I.A. Richards. But it`s The Anthologist that would really help "and for some fascinating reasons.
The narrator, Paul Chowder (the book is set in New England), is writing about his love of poetry and his feelings for a lover he has just lost. This delicate two-step serves admirably as a device for exploring the significance of poetry in our lives.
Chowder, a bereaved anthologist with a penchant for cutting his fingers (on the sharp edges of things, you see), is beside himself with gemmy anecdotes about poets. He has a few axes to grind, maybe a score or two to settle, but he is so palpably a decent man that his foibles only serve to make us chuckle.
He tells us he`s not much of a rhymer, not like the inarguable master, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and not like Swinburne`s successor, the neglected Sylvia Townsend Warner, I might add. But he grieves for the loss of rhyme, and he even dates it: 1909, the year Filippo Tomasso Marinetti published the futurist manifesto.
There are culprits, too, notably Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Chowder, aka Baker, carries off this project, the reinstatement of rhyme, largely because he wishes aloud that he himself were a better rhymer and yet has no quarrel with free verse, being himself a practitioner. And so he puts the reader at ease as to the purity of his purpose.
But none of this would matter if he does not do that one thing that makes The Anthologist so delightful "and yes, necessary. He shows you with scansion marks, echoics, stress patterns and even musical notes the nature of English poetry, the sources of its power and thrum. He eschews the usual diacriticals and employs a system of circled numbers and boldfaced syllables to show us the beat and syncopation of a poetic line. Where others might speak of caesura and line break, Chowder speaks of the musical rest.
His underlying point is that a poem is, more than anything else, a song. By making this point he nicely raises the issue, without having to engage it and therefore go off tangentially, of whether we define poetry too narrowly. But on the other hand he also implies that we may tend to celebrate poetry today that is less poetic than it seems.
Baker reminds me of my artist-mother going to a big abstract expressionist show in New York and declaring, They paint this way because they can`t draw. There was enough truth in her remark to piss off quite a few people, and one might draw the inference from The Anthologist that the gentleman thinks free verse flexed its mighty 20th Century muscle because its main practitioners couldn`t rhyme well. There`s probably enough truth in that to piss off a cadre of insiders, but rhymers have persisted, not just in what we define as poetry, but in popular music "and an immense body of free verse is in fact metrically disciplined and rich with half rhymes, near rhymes, ghost rhymes, random rhymes, assonances and other audial devices.
In fact, the French idea of vers libre is poorly understood in the Anglophone world. It isn`t a license for lax discipline, quite the contrary. It is less about removing strictures and more about redirecting them. In John Ashbery`s translations of Arthur Rimbaud`s Illuminations you see this instantly.
Every so often I like a writer so much I get annoyed at some perceived lapse. This happened on page 204 of The Anthologist. Writing of his lost love "well, she`s not quite lost "he says, Her breasts didn`t have to rhyme, but in fact they did rhyme. " Now Baker, I said, you`re better than that. Why didn`t you just say her breasts rhymed? Better yet, why didn`t you say her breasts rhyme, since you`re still living in her shadow? Not as metrical, I hear him say. And I would say, Could I persuade you to write another chapter?
Baker`s prose style is disarmingly diffident. His discourse about musical rests in poetry is demonstrated here. So, too, his contention that good poets don`t use big words. He is as good as his word when it comes to style. He does at times seem pesky and curmudgeonly, but we forgive him because he enlightens and amuses us. His gossip is worth the price. We know any number of poets better for it; I`m thinking particularly of Elizabeth Bishop, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke and Louise Bogan. And there are others upon whose lives and work he casts a spotlight, all the while avowing he doesn`t know much. Even this disingenuous caveat delights us, because it enables him to share canapÃ©s a critic might have to footnote. We`re in on Baker`s humor; he makes us insiders by virtue of our being with him on the outside looking in. It`s a lovely ploy that in the hands of a heavier-handed writer might annoy us.
I`ve lived a fairly long life in the bosom of poetry and yet I came away from The Anthologist foolishly grateful for Baker`s insights, not least of which is his well argued conviction that the four-beat line and not the iambic pentameter is the essential line in English poetry. He could have written a book about this "and some scholars would and may yet "but he couldn`t have made the case better than he does with a handful of examples.
He argues that the iambic pentameter is French (he doesn`t say it came with the Normans, but that seems arguable) and that the four-beat line, which he calls a kind of gavotte, is native to English. Here`s a famous example from Edna Saint Vincent Millay:
Love has gone and left me and I don`t know what to do
And here`s how Baker/Chowder renders it in stress pattern:
Love has gone and left me and I don`t know what to do
If The Eagles or any number of country musicians had written that line we`d hardly call it poetry, but the fact is similarly beautiful lines are being written all the time and called lyrics, not poetry, a dicey distinction if ever there was one.
The Baker/Chowder narrator goes on to say the line has inner fuzz-bursts of phonemic energy. " You see what fun The Anthologist is. For example, the narrator tells us that the famous five-beat line on which English poetry is said to rest is not a five-beat line but rather a six-beat line and therefore not a pentameter. Why? Because the line so often requires a rest which constitutes another beat. He`s not being fusty or cranky, nor does he sound that way. He`s making the dead-bang point that we`re taught poetry in ways that ill serve it and us, ways that make it seem fusty.
If we`re going to teach an understanding of poetry in high school and college, this should be a required text, if only because his approach is that poetry is not as formidable as its formidable critical apparatus has made it out to be.
The Anthologist comes to rest with just that word, rest. His lover doesn`t return, but they`re reconciled to the short distance between them, as poets are reconciled to not having quite hit their mark. As I feared at the start, I miss this treasurable meditation.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com