I read Nicholson Baker’s first six books, and then I somehow lost track of him. (Thanks for nothing, Internet.) I especially loved his early works of nonfiction: U and I and The Size of Thoughts (with its hilarious Stephen King takedown). But recently, like a lot of poets, I got interested in him again, after hearing he had published a novel about poetry. Rebecca weighed in on The Anthologist last month in these pages; now it’s my turn.
Unlike Rebecca, I’ve been, at times, a collector. I’ve hoarded the usual things: coins, baseball cards; and the less usual things: monkey figurines, Whitman editions. Anyway, I loved The Anthologist — found it odd and bracing and Jesus-I-need-to-read-this-passage-out-loud-right-now funny. Some of my enthusiasm may have come simply from the fact that I was reading a book — and not doing last-minute Christmas shopping or running to catch a long-distance bus or following too closely the Gilbert Arenas and Conan O’Brien sagas. And who better than Nicholson Baker to help me re-engage with my pre-Internet self?
The plot of The Anthologist is easy enough to recount: Paul Chowder, a sort-of-good poet, has edited an anthology of rhyming poems and can’t bring himself to write the introduction. But as with much of Baker’s fiction, the plot is almost incidental; the devilish pleasures are in the details. I exhausted a stack of Post-it Flags while reading the book, marking shout-outs to Edward Lear and Wendy Cope, to Troy Jollimore and The Rattle Bag. I loved the name of Chowder’s dog: Smacko (a contender for best pet-name ever, though perhaps losing out to Kay Ryan’s Clac-Clac). And I especially loved Chowder’s explications of Bishop’s “The Fish” and Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” (“It’s about the torturer’s horse, and about how the ‘dogs go on with their doggy life.’ Nobody ever put that way of talking in a poem before.”) Baker — or Baker-as-Chowder — pairs Kipling with Ludacris (they both rely on “inner quadruplets”); he bemoans the dearth of light verse in national magazines; he explains the origins of “Pop Goes the Weasel” (it has to do with measuring yarn). Here, then, are a dozen more favorite moments:
On iambic pentameter:
People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting.
When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up. I’m only a little messed up. I’m tortured to the point where I don’t sleep very well sometimes, and I don’t answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something.
Singing is the desire to warble out something that is beyond words but that relies on words. So poetry and alcohol are what the responsible doctor should prescribe, and maybe letter writing, as well. And chin-ups.
On teachers who tell you “It Doesn’t Have to Rhyme”:
What did she really mean by “It doesn’t have to rhyme?” Did she mean it could rhyme but it didn’t have to? No. She meant Don’t rhyme. She meant: I am going to manacle your poor pliable brains with freedom. I’m going to insist that you must be free. She wrote “FREE VERSE” on the board.
And I sat there on my chair with the very smooth casters and I thought, What does she mean it doesn’t have to rhyme? It does have to rhyme! It’s got to rhyme, because rhyme is poetry. Where did Little Miss Muffet sit? Did she sit on a cushion? Did she sit on a love seat? No, she sat on a tuffet.
On pop culture:
At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention.
What is enjambment? Enjambment is the key to the whole conundrum. The word originally comes from an old French word, “jambon.” “Jambon” means ham. Anytime Ronsard or one of those French troubadour poets used enjambment, they flung a slice of ham at him. Ronsard learned his lesson and wrote some really nice love songs.
On the USB cable:
Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race, because you can’t tell which way to turn it and you waste minutes of your tiny day, crouched, grunting, trying the half-blocked connector one way and the next.
I held my hand in the air, and I kept testing my finger, wondering whether the bone in it was broken. I really didn’t want to go to a doctor and have them say, Ah-hah, we’ll X-ray it and give you a bone scan and a barium enema, just to be sure. No thank you. I have no health insurance. Death is my health insurance.
On death, again:
But spending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole movie and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end. It’s a mistake of emphasis.
I have something quite remarkable to tell you about butter, but maybe that’s for another time. Oh, might as well tell you now. Unsalted butter is flavored. For instance, I buy Land O’ Lakes butter — but this observation applies to all major brands of butter — and I didn’t realize this until Roz pointed it out a few years ago. Roz has very keen tastebuds. All unsalted butter has so-called “natural” flavoring. Real butter is flavored with butter flavor. Just think about that. I didn’t believe it till I read the ingredients. Butter-flavored butter. When you know that fact, you’ll taste it and it’ll drive you nuts. How long has this outrage been going on?
On teaching a creative-writing workshop:
As the hour was ending, I said, “Folks, just a heads-up. I want you to know that I won’t be able to read some of the poetry that you’ve just given me. I will be writing a ‘U.R.’ on some of your poems. What does U.R. mean? It means ‘Un Read.’ I will want very much to read every word of all your poems, because my duty as your instructor is to read them, but in some cases I will not be able to, because, I’m sorry, I can’t. And so for some of you the grade that I give you will be based from here on entirely on class participation. Or if you’re silent and shy and thoughtful and don’t talk at all in class, that’s all right, I fully respect that, I’ll just grade you on those sudden gleams of thoughtful insight that I detect in your eyes. An alert look in your eyes is probably more predictive of your future success than any poetry you will write any time soon.”
On poetry collections:
There’s something narcissistic in the phrase “collected poems.” Who’s collecting them? The poet. How hard is that? That’s not a real collection. Now if he had made a collection of water fountains, or of oven mitts, that would be a collection.
One last something-or-other, to make it a baker’s dozen . . .