Off-beat: Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist

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Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a strange book: part idiosyncratic poetry manual, part disconnected personal narrative. The first line of the novel, if you can comfortably call it that, pulls no punches: “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” The reader is thrust involuntarily into a relationship with the infuriating, disarming Chowder for almost 250 pages as he moons over his breakup with Roz—stringer-of-beads and washer-of-dogs-extraordinaire—as well as his inability to write an introduction to a poetry anthology, this latter failure having precipitated Roz’s leaving.

Chowder, as his name suggests, is buffoonish—a poet past his prime, with a name like a minor Dickens character, unable to hold down a teaching job, maintain a relationship, or write a simple introduction to a poetry anthology. One page after promising to tell us everything he knows, Chowder lets us in on a secret: “My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure.” And this, dear readers, is our pocket guide to The Anthologist: the story of a loser by all accounts, lacking even the pathos of a character like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man or the vaudeville of Toole’s Ignatius Reilly.

To make matters worse, Chowder is a digressive loser. Immediately after proclaiming himself a failure, he informs us that he’s in the barn again, a comment which makes him think of the lyrics to a country song. After considering what it takes to become a great poet, he pictures Tennyson at a salad bar, eying bean salad. These digressions—from serious commentary, to self-deprecation, to irrelevant or distracting observations—meander through the whole of the novel, which lacks a strong narrative line and instead proceeds by associative fits and starts with the reader a hostage to Chowder’s internal monologue.

In the barn of his Portsmouth, New Hampshire home, Chowder sets out to write the introduction to his anthology of rhymed poetry—a pathetic magnum opus which he is unable to complete, no matter how much coffee and Yukon Jack he drinks, how many nonsense songs he sings, or how many colored Sharpies he buys to mark up his big easel of presentation paper. The introduction simply won’t come. Instead, we have over two hundred pages of tortured self-pity and the achingly boring details of Chowder’s life as he does laundry, helps repair his neighbor’s floor, and suffers multiple finger injuries. Interspersed with this laundry-list of mundanities are Chowder’s reflections on poetry—he name-drops poets, living and dead, obsessively—and his startlingly insightful views on rhymed verse and the inadequacy of iambic pentameter.

What The Anthologist is about, if anything, is not so much Paul Chowder’s life as it is the vagaries of the “poetry scene:” the fads and fashions, the backbiting and pettiness that make up the poetry world; what poetry is and what poetry should be. Early on, Chowder thinks about the overabundance of mediocre poetry and the arbitrary way in which one piece—one “firkin of flaccidness”—gets selected for a taste-setting journal, while another gets snubbed.

There is something artificially sacred about a poem, Chowder believes; it is elevated to greatness—or made infallible—simply in its placement on a page, framed in white, set off from the fiction and essays. He observes that poems on the pages of the New Yorker give the reader a nudge and a wink: “This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton.” But how artificial the selection is! Chowder rails against Alice Quinn, former poetry editor of the New Yorker, for accepting a piece of verse he calls a “firkin of flaccidness” rather than one of his own poems. He pictures these lucky poems muscling their way onto the pages, “cavorting, saying I’m a poem, I’m a poem,” and he responds, “No, you’re not! You’re an imposter, you’re a toy train of pretend stanzas of garbage. Just like my poem was.”

Chowder desperately wants to write one good poem; he is sick of the dreck churned out, published, and revered, but he knows himself to be a failure of the worst kind—not particularly talented and no longer in vogue. He imagines approaching Paul Muldoon—the new editor of the New Yorker—in supplication with a few poems:

Dear Paul Muldoon. Glad you’re on the case now at the New Yorker. We met briefly at that poetry wingding at the 92nd Street Y a few tulip bubbles ago. Here are some fresh squibs, I hope you like them. “My feaste of joy is but a dish of payne,” as the condemned man said before he was publicly disemboweled. All the very best, Paul.

Understandably, Chowder does not send such a letter. He has given up on pushing his poetry at all, realizing that he will most likely receive a rejection letter labeling his poems as “underweathered,” or “overfurnished,” or some other incomprehensible blurbish adjective.

Academia leaves Chowder equally discouraged. Just as, in The Program Era, Mark McGurl charts the exponential growth of creative writing programs in the twentieth century and the mixed effects such programs have had on literature, so Baker, through Chowder, also comments on how detrimental the mass-marketing of literary culture can be. He bemoans how the overproduction of poetry waters down imaginative and literary environments. He pictures

a spume of poetry that’s just blowing out of the sulfurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It’s unstoppable, it’s uncorkable. There’s no way to make it end. If we could just—just stop.

Sulfurous flue-holes. Poetry has become not art but a grossly over-produced pollutant—as bad for humanity, and as inevitable as carbon emissions and global warming, just another consequence of too much selfishness and too much comfort. Chowder picks up on this theme—the unhealthy glut of poetry—again and again in The Anthologist. He spends his spare time reading literary journals, name-scanning and sizing up his colleagues and competitors:

I thought of a poet named Ed Ochester. Good poet. And then I thought of another good poet, Mary Kinzie. And then I thought of another one, Matthew Rohrer. And another, Stanley Plumly. There are hundreds of poets like Ed O. And like me. And we all love the busy ferment, and we all know it’s nonsense. Getting together for conferences of international poetry. Hah! A joke. Reading our poems. Our little moment. Physical presence. In the same room with. A community. Forget it. It’s a joke.

The “literary community” is a sham, kids playing dress-up, while poetry has become big business—marketable in the form of M.F.A. and creative writing programs; a world in which failed poets become teachers. But Paul Chowder—the study in failure—has even failed in that respect as well. The small liberal college he taught at for one semester will not have him back after he quit suddenly in nervous exhaustion. In his rejection of academia—or, in academia’s rejection of him—Chowder still manages to put himself in good company: Elizabeth Bishop turned up her nose at poetry as “Big Business” and did not particularly enjoy teaching; Auden was suspicious of it; and Philip Larkin believed that paying poets to teach removed the “element of compulsive contact.” As self-deprecating as Chowder is, he cannily manages to rank himself with the finest poets. To this egomaniac, even supposed “failures” are back-handed compliments to himself.

Perhaps Chowder is not an abysmal failure though, but, worse by far, simply a mediocre one. While great failures at life may become great poets, mediocre failures never do much of anything. The Anthologist’s protagonist is so caught up with the myth of the tortured-but-brilliant artist that he laments his own lack of great vices, misfortunes, and character flaws. His failures are—to recall Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”—not important ones. His sorrows are not serious ones, not the kind great poets have. “You might think to yourself,” as Chowder does,

Oh boy, I am one of these great depressive figures. But you’re not. Just because a doctor has scribbled a half-legible prescription on a piece of paper and given you some pills, you’re not depressed. Not the way a real poet is depressed. You don’t even come close.

True poet’s depression is a rigor mortis of agony. It’s a full-body inability to function… Louise Bogan summed it up in two quick lines…: ‘At midnight tears / Run in your ears.’

And, at midnight, tears do not run in the ears of Baker’s narrator. Yes, he is unhappy that his girlfriend left him, but he bumbles on. And just after telling us that “you have to suffer in order to be a human being who can help people understand suffering,” Chowder pops out a typical non-sequitur: “I have a mouse in the kitchen.” Life goes on. Distractions abound. The sun keeps shining as it has to; the expensive delicate ship must sail on. The reader is at the mercy of Chowder’s digressions, as banal and perplexing as these may be, just as in Auden’s poem one cannot ignore that a horse is scratching up against a tree while someone is being tortured. There is no “dreadful martyrdom,” however, in Chowder’s case; there is merely unpleasantness—minor injuries, minor frustrations. Paul Chowder does not live the mythos of the great, tormented artist—he is not a consumptive Keats, not a mad, bad Byron. He is simply one of many latter day poetry-buffoons, unable to finish a simple anthology introduction. And he plays up his buffoonery, imagining hosting his own weekly podcast (a failure before it even leaves the drawing-board):

Hello, this is Paul Chowder welcoming you to Chowder’s Bowl of Poetry. And I’m your host, Paul Chowder, and this is Chowder’s Plumfest of Poems. Hello, and welcome to thePaul Chowder Poetry Hour. I’m your host and confidant, Paul Chowder, and I’d like to welcome you to Chowder’s Flying Spoonful of Rhyme. And this is Chowder’s Poetry Cheatsheet, and I’m your host, Paul Chowder, from hell and gone, welcoming you toChowder’s Thimblesquirt of Verse.

Certainly, the world can do with fewer thimblesquirts of verse. Chowder simply fills the empty space with his own name, regurgitates words no one wants to hear, and adds to the overproduction of dreck in the world.

Yet, he is a failure with some idiosyncratic and delightful insights. Baker’s Chowder (a culinary pun the author must have enjoyed) knows a thing or two about rhyme and meter. In many ways he is a musician manqué rather than a poet. Primarily a writer of free verse—plums, as he calls them—Chowder is forever drawn to rhyme and rhythm. Immediately after offering Bogan’s tears-in-the-ears couplet, he pauses to consider how rhyming and crying are sonically similar: “rhyming and weeping—there are obvious linkages between the two. When you listen to a child cry, he cries in meter … Poetry is the controlled refinement of sobbing.”

Chowder sees rhymes everywhere: in the symmetry of a tulip, in Roz’s breasts, which he imagines cupping: that “cupping is rhyme—the felt matching of two congruent shapes.” In an intuitive sense, Chowder realizes that rhyming, like crying, and like the symmetry of physical forms, is biologically useful—a natural learning and memory tool, as basic as they come. When babies babble, they babble in rhyme: ga, da, ba. As adults, we continue to find pleasure and usefulness (the two are evolutionary correlated) in rhyme. Chowder observes:

The tongue is a rhyming fool. It wants to rhyme because that’s how it stores what it knows. It’s got a detailed checklist of muscle moves for every consonant and vowel and diphthong and fricative and flap and plosive. Pull, relax, twitch, curl, touch. And somewhere in there, on some neural net in your underconsciousness, stored away, all these checklists, or neuromuscular profiles, or call them sound cues, are stored away, like the parts of car bodies, or spoons, with similar shapes nested near each other. Broom and loom and tomb and spume and womb and whom are all lying there on the table in one spot. And you figured all that out by yourself. They rhyme … Rhyme taught us to talk.

In this intuition, Chowder aligns himself with evolutionary and cognitive linguists. As early as the end of the 18th century, the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt observed that “man, as a species, is a singing creature, though the notes, in his case, are also coupled with thought.” In the 20th century the structural linguist Roman Jakobson and the cognitive linguists Ronald Langacker and George Lakoff, amongst others, have done work on the connections between poetics and linguistics.

As a non-linguist, however, Chowder approaches rhyme more intuitively, and—like a great many other poets—observers that the rhyme and rhythm of poetry are also the fundamentals of singing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, believed poetry to be “speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound,” and W.B. Yeats used the image of “singing school” in his own verse. Musicality is often touted in contemporary introductions to poetry. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky argues that “in a way we sing all day to one another, when we speak,” and—as Pinsky continues—this musicality is only intensified in poetry which is often deliberately set out in patterns of stress and sound (often with syncopation of a sort to keep the reader on his or her toes).

It should be no surprise that Nicholson Baker, whose keen poetic insights inform the character of Paul Chowder, trained briefly at the Eastman School of Music. Many of our narrator’s thoughts about poetry—the importance of rhyme and rhythm, the belief that the four-beat line is at the heart of English poetry rather than iambic pentameter, and the importance of musical rests in poetry—also appear to be Baker’s own. In an interview with Nicholas Wroe for The Guardian in September, Baker remarked that Chowder’s

writing worries and theories are for the most part my own. I want people to trust that there is some observed pressure of truth behind what Paul says. For example, I think “iambic pentameter” is a hellish misnomer that can actually injure a couplet—if it’s imposed without the supplemental help of ear-knowledge.

Baker, with evident glee, uses The Anthologist to present his own idiosyncratic ideas about poetry. Most prominent is the idea that iambic pentameter is not the cornerstone of English poetry; rather, it is the four-beat ballad, or a six-beat line with a musician’s rest at the end. He proves his case by scanning lines for us, placing stresses and rests with convincing confidence. If there is joy to be had in The Anthologist, it is for these musical insights. Baker’s own close readings which startle in their clarity and accuracy. Baker-through-Chowder delights in individual lines (Sir Walter Raleigh’s “give me my scallop-shell of quiet”) with a musician’s ear and sets his favorites to music, all for the captive reader’s enjoyment.

While we are at the mercy of Chowder’s thoughts, there are a number of gems strewn in among the quotidian hum-drum. Much of Chowder’s life resounds with the music of rhyme and rhythm. Even while making a necklace in an attempt to woo back Roz, he imagines the patterning of colored beads as the visual equivalent of stress patterns in poetry. And eventually Chowder—the admitted failure—finds his stride. By the end of the novel, he finishes the introduction to his anthology (and it should not escape any reader’s mind that the novel as a whole functions as a long, meandering introduction to rhymed poetry—despite digressions on the mouse in the kitchen or the laundry on the line). He even makes headway with Roz; although she doesn’t move back in, they do agree to go on a date—a qualified success for a man whose life is a study in failure. Basking in his moderate success, Chowder draws the narrative to a close with a final, silent beat: the word “rest.”

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About Nora Delaney

Nora Delaney is a poet, translator, and critic. She received her PhD from the Editorial Institute of Boston University. Her writing can be found in Literary Imagination, Two Lines Online, Absinthe: New European Writing, Subtropics, Pusteblume, Little Star, Fulcrum, The Arts Fuse, and elsewhere.