Countering plums with aplomb
Nicholson Baker has stirred up blood pressure with his erotic novels Vox and The Fermata and outrage with Double Fold, his cri de coeur against the mania in U.S. libraries for saving books and newspapers by destroying them.
But this time he’s really asking for trouble. In The Anthologist, Baker’s recently published beguiling novel about poetry, he emerges as a champion of that despised orphan of contemporary poetic form: rhyme. “I always secretly want it to rhyme,” he writes. “Don’t you, some of you? Admit it.”
The voice is that of Paul Chowder, a sometime poet and full-time procrastinator who has edited a poetry anthology, Only Rhyme, and is now deeply engaged in avoiding the writing of an introduction to the book as his publisher’s deadline recedes impossibly into the past. But the voice behind Paul Chowder’s voice is the voice of Nicholson Baker, and that’s the voice that answered the phone at his home in Maine when Pasatiempo called. He appears as part of the Lannan Readings and Conversations series at the Lensic Performing Arts Center onWednesday, Jan. 20.
“It’s not that I think nonrhyming poetry is somehow inadequate,” Baker explained. “When it’s good, it’s beautiful. But there’s a miracle to a rhyming poem, when it works, that I love. I have an extended passage in the book of the narrator’s theory that rhyme in a sense is what taught us to talk. The way we figure out what mouth movements and mental movements are associated with a certain sound has to do with echoing that sound in somebody else. We start by matching things up, what sounds are like other sounds. We start by rhyming things, and then we have to figure out what the beginning of a word is, and we learn to unsnap or detach that beginning sound and put another sound in there. It’s just so much a part of the prehistory of speech. And the delightful thing is that poems, rhyming poems— a Shakespeare sonnet, say— carry that basic early discovery, that we all as human beings made, out into the world of the highest, most subtle emotion. It combines those two things together. And when it works, it’s just extremely exciting. On the other hand, when it’s just jingle for the sake of jingle, it’s not good at all. The poem has to be good.”
In the book, ironically, Chowder is a writer of “plums.” “That’s what I call a poem that doesn’t rhyme— it’s a plum,” Chowder says. “We who write and publish our nonrhyming plums aren’t poets, we’re plummets. Or plummers.” (The book’s dust jacket is adorned with a formal-looking, ripe, purple plum.)
Baker disclaimed any standing as a poet. “I write dense, metaphor-heavy prose, and the way I learned how to write that was by reading poetry. I never really felt I had the wherewithal to be a poet. But I come from a line of poets. My grandmother wrote light verse, my greatgrandfather wrote light verse and published a volume, my other grandfather wrote serious traditional verse that he had to self-publish, so I come from a line of failed poets, I guess you could say.”
But Baker is far from seeing the modern era as a vast wasteland for the art of rhyme. Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway musical produced some of the great achievements in modern verse. Cole Porter? “I think he’s a genius. That’s the strange thing about the 20th century, it’s the rhymingest century. We think that poetry turned away from rhyme and became modern, that’s the story. But 200 years from now it may be a different story. Because of the phonograph record and movies, it may be we’ll see that rhyme had a kind of supernova, an explosion of internal and external rhymes, and the frequency of rhyming, and the cleverness, the wittiness.” When he mentioned a Shakespeare sonnet earlier, I admitted that what came to mind was “a Bendel bonnet” (a rhyme from Porter’s “You’re the Top”).
“That’s the problem that some people have,” he said. “There are these sound curves in your head, and you match them up with other ones, and the delight is that they don’t always match, the meanings don’t match.” The breakthrough in this discipline began in the 19th century “with people like Swinburne and Gilbert and Sullivan, all those clever lyrics,” he said, but “it only really became great when American lyricists went to work on it and just came up with this rich thing that may be the great poetic achievement of the 20th century. But what do I know?”
One of the perks of the novel form is that you don’t have to know. Or at least the narrator doesn’t. Baker acknowledged that his viewpoints and Chowder’s are similar but not identical. “My opinions are sometimes a little less extreme than his. Also, the great thing about novels is that you can be self-contradictory and inconclusive and inconsistent. And you might think that those are all weaknesses, but they’re true to the way we think about any big subject. On a Tuesday you might think, My God, why is there no light verse? and on a Thursday you might think, It’s certainly good we moved beyond Ogden Nash. It’s part of the way opinions and theories cycle through one’s head, the pieces that are uppermost at any one time. A novel allows you to do that. So I wanted to hold onto that, instead of what I first tried to do, which was to write this kind of tract on
poetry, how poetry works and why people want to rhyme and who are the poets we want to think about and all that sort of stuff.”
In The Anthologist, Baker takes time to celebrate the four-beat line. “And finally,” Chowder tells us, “the really important thing you have to know is: The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.”
I asked Baker to expound on this. “The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry in the sense that it’s where it really began,” he divulged. (“Divulge” is a word Chowder relishes. “A juicy word,” he calls it.) “When you go for a walk, and you chant something to yourself, you’ll find you’re basically going in fours, twos or fours. Any march, most song lyrics. The limerick. The ballad. Now what happened is that because we’re human beings we elaborate on things, and then there are longer lines and lots of fancy terms, but basically, it’s surprising how often things resolve, even things with very fancy scientific names, you know, trochaic tetrameter with lines two and four, catalectic, which is the way Poe’s ‘The Raven’ is described in one book— it’s basically one-two-three-four-two-two-three-four. It’s the same as Kipling’s [‘The Benefactors’]: And what is Art whereto we press / Through paint and prose and rhyme (rest!) / When Nature in her nakedness / Defeats us every time? (rest!),” Baker said.
“If you accept the fact that there are rests in beats, and if you accept the fact that beats can have inner pulses, it turns out that the four-beat line is just basic, it’s the basic starting point. I’m not saying that iambic pentameter, which is another fancy term, is not a great thing. But I wanted the guy [Chowder] to have some kind of fervent, passionate belief about this, because— hell, it’s true!”
It was time to talk about sex. “One reason I like to write novels about sex,” Baker said, “is because it seems private. It’s a private subject that we all think about all the time, so it’s a tremendously public private subject. And that’s the perfect kind of topic for a novel. I don’t know, you kind of write about what you know. I’ve been struggling with this problem my whole writing life: How do you tell the truth about something complicated? It could be about a moment in the history of libraries, or the recent history of poetry, or about sex, or about anything. How do you really tell the truth about it? And how do you tell the truth about life? That’s the biggest question. How do you actually make sense of it? And I’ve never really figured it out, but each of my books is an attempt to get at that from one direction or another. Sometimes you have to go up the leg, like they do in heart surgery.”
In The Anthologist, that struggle is played out in Chowder’s continuing inability to write the introduction to Only Rhyme. It drives his girlfriend Roz up the wall:
“She said, Just go! Just go up there and write it! You want to write it. Your editor wants you to write it. I want you to write it. Write it!
I said I couldn’t write it, it was too awful, too huge, it was like staring at death.”
Roz gets frustrated and moves out. Chowder is miserable, but not miserable enough to overcome his writer’s block. But when I asked Baker about writer’s block, he said he didn’t believe in it. “I think writers use that phrase sometimes because it sounds good; it sounds like they’ve got a lot to say but there’s an impediment, there’s a giant stone in their way, and they’re blocked. But a lot of times— and this is true of me— they just don’t have anything to say. My hero is suffering from something, no doubt about it; he’s suffering from procrastination, from self-doubt, from a miserable sense that his girlfriend left him, but also, and this is the hard one, it’s from a feeling that you have so much to say that you don’t know where to start. So it’s not a question of being blocked; it’s the sense that there’s a panicky feeling that no matter where you start you’re giving short shrift to something else.”
So what is worth writing about? There was a long pause, and then Baker said, “I think that’s the question. Because everything you decide to write about involves the rejection of everything else. And there’s something really frightening about that, because it takes time to write anything. I make a lot of lists. I think, What do I actually have to say? What can I contribute? You only figure that out when you start, so I start many things and abandon them. And then circle back.”
Working on a novel, I suggested, is like mining: you’re down in the bowels of the earth, and you can’t see out, and you don’t know where you are. “Writing novels or big works of nonfiction, yeah, you’re in there,” Baker said. “Oh God, the Mines of Moria, and where do you turn? Is it going to be the left tunnel or the right tunnel, who knows? And there are all these moments in a book when you feel like you’re never going to get out.”
So far, Nicholson Baker has made it out. The proof will be when he takes the stage at the Lensic onWednesday to talk about how he got there, and The Anthologist, and poetry that rhymes, and the things he chooses to write about. Baker likes to rummage around in the clutter of small, ordinary things that we tend to overlook. “I think truths that most people aren’t thinking that happen to be true are more interesting to write about than the ones that everybody’s thinking, because the ones that everybody’s thinking are well taken care of,” he said.
Nicholson Baker, illustration by Jonathan Richards