Coun­ter­ing plums with aplomb

Pasatiempo - - Mixed Media - Jonathan Richards I For The New Mex­i­can

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

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