Paul Chowder, poet-narrator of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, writes (when he does write) free verse. The sample he gives, in which he watches the bottom of his now estranged girlfriend Roz ascending the stairs in white pants, is bad; his "Flying Spoon" poems must share its flat rhythms, lazy line-endings and vagueness. No wonder he has not yet been chosen as American Poet Laureate; no wonder he prefers rhymed poetry, though he has no aptitude for it. No wonder he accepted a commission to edit an anthology entitled Only Rhyme, with an introductory apologia for traditional form.
This novel records his anthologist's block and its consequences, considerably more entertaining than writer's block. An anthologist unable to start on his introduction can still be, like Chowder, sourly garrulous: full of sensations, prejudices, anxieties. He rolls his eyes and reflects on the optic nerves. He keeps injuring his fingers on tin cans or knives. He has a close relationship with a mouse and a wasp. He neglects his dog. He longs for his departed girlfriend with unsubtle neediness.
Parallel to his musings on life, he develops an argument about poetry and composes a sort of introduction, a reactionary account of the name and nature of poetry, a tissue of prejudices. The introduction he delivers to his publisher is, by his own account, roughly the length of the novel he has written.
The Anthologist uses actual poets, publishers and poems in the creation of its fictional narrator. Chowder hallucinates Swinburne, Longfellow, Poe and Whittier; Theodore Roethke (long dead) limps up the hill outside his house. In the novel he has corresponded with Alice Quinn and bumps into Paul Muldoon. James Fenton is his lodestar. He's jealous of Billy Collins. He may be without talent but not without opinions, some of them his own. He admires Louise Bogan and starts with an oblique homage to her. He celebrates forgotten Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsay. He virulently hates Ezra Pound. Though American, he is steeped in mainstream British poetry. He dislikes academia: he failed as a teacher. He despises Modernism and the modern world. In the end he becomes a house-painter.
Which is just as well. These are some of his literary ideas. Poets should read their poems in funny accents to hear them afresh; some poems boil down to a single word. The haiku is wholly bogus. A poet should write about what gives him most pleasure in the day.
On rhythm, he has a few useful things to say. The rest at the end of a line can have the weight of a beat, and once we allow for rests, our sense of rhythm becomes less metronymic, more instinctive. This perception would take a more exuberant spirit in the direction of accentual or free verse, but for Chowder it tightens the fetters of rhyme. Were we to follow his directions, the world of poetry would become a more orderly and much smaller place.
The ineffectual protagonist is a beguiling misfit, advancing at tangents, a pair of ragged claws. The novel misfires when this voice is overridden by that of the author who makes Chowder into his own spokesman, giving him opinions on Larkin, Marinetti or Pound, either at odds with the character or outside the parameters of the novel.
Chowder rejoices that he has outlived the age of free verse: a new age is at hand, of which his anthology is a harbinger. Insofar as he is a figure of fiction and fun, this is a comic novel; were we to take Chowder's ideas seriously, the fun would soon sour.
Michael Schmidt's 'Lives of the Poets' is published by Phoenix