poetry

Nicholas Baker’s writing ranges between forceful and compelling tirades (like his exposure of the wanton destruction of books by the San Francisco Public Library in favor of microfilm) and those excessively detailed, slightly OCDish, minutiae-driven novels that can sometimes be just a little too much. But I always pay attention to what he’s paying attention to. He has a mind that picks up obscure but worthy transmissions from the cultural ether.

His latest book, The Anthologist, is—happily (or so I am hoping since I haven’t actually read the book yet)—about the world of poetry. The review in the New York Times by poet David Orr is worth the read for anyone who has an interest in that complex, fish bowl self-conscious, vital yet narrow demi-monde.

Here’s the way Orr sets this up:

Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry that’s actually about poetry — and that is also startlingly perceptive and ardent, both as a work of fiction and as a representation of the kind of thinking that poetry readers do. “The Anthologist” is the story of Paul Chowder, a semi-successful, middle-aged American poet trying and mostly failing to write the introduction to an anthology called “Only Rhyme…”

Mostly what Chowder does is talk about poetry. And then talk some more. And then, you know, a little more. This wouldn’t be an exciting prospect — it would, in fact, be a dreadful prospect — except that Chowder is possibly the most appealing narrator Baker has invented. He can be amiably whimsical (“God I wish I was a canoe”) and then amiably bizarre (“Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree”). He is heartsick (“My life is a lie”), childlike (“I just want to sit and sing to myself”) and perhaps more than anything else, funny without being brittle (“I had the touch. I was good at what I did. And what I did was drive to poetry readings”).

That’s so funny and so endearing—identifying one’s true skill set as being good at driving to poetry readings. After all, somebody has to do that work.

Orr’s final paragraph is insightful in more than just its reference to The Anthologist, and worthy of a share here as well:

There’s a hoary but still useful distinction to be made between poetry as the chilly, brilliant, stellar sweep of millions of combinations of words over centuries — as the product of thousands of minds moving upon silence, in Yeats’s phrasing — and the warmer, occasionally sentimental way in which individual readers find meaning in the smaller, match-lit pleasures of stanzas, words, lines, and bits of trivia or gossip. This latter aspect is what Baker has set out to capture in “The Anthologist.” It’s easy to underestimate this project, because in its lesser incarnations it so often comes swaddled in layers of hokum about feelings and hearts and “being human.” But it’s a vital part of poetry. “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing,” Chowder says. Well, no. But also: yes. We read poems because they have a knack for mattering. And how pleasing it is to be so gently, so poetically reminded of that.

That phrase, “a controlled refinement of sobbing” reminded me of another description by a memoir-centric writer (sorry, but I can’t remember who it was—maybe Rafael Yglesias?) who described his experience of producing a novel this way: “I wrote for six months, then I cried for six months. It was back and forth between these two until the book was finished.” A big believer in the power of the tear, I can stand up and say yes to that division of labor.

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