In Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker’s sort-of sequel to The Anthologist, poet Paul Chowder turns his attention to drone attacks, and songwriting, and ex-girlfriend wooing. He’s nearly “Fifty Fucking Five,” the “three Fs,” and he’s still occupied with what I’ll call the two Ms: musing and meandering. Traveling Sprinkler advertises itself as a novel, but it’s even less plot-driven than its predecessor. (The Anthologist’s nominal plotline—Will Paul Chowder finish his introduction to Only Rhyme?—has been replaced by an even more local concern: Will Paul win back Roz?) But no matter. My thoughts on reading Nicholson Baker are similar to Bob Dylan’s thoughts on watching Gregory Peck: “He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about / But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line.”
If you read Traveling Sprinkler, you’ll learn the following (possible) facts:
- When Charles Darwin was “old and sad he asked his son to play bassoon for a heap of earthworms, to study their responsiveness to low sounds. He also played a tin whistle for them and pounded on the piano and shouted at them. ‘They took not the least notice,’ Darwin said.”
- Archibald MacLeish helped to establish the CIA. Or, as Chowder (Baker?) puts it, “Archibald MacLeish was one of the original instigators and organizers of this bloated monstrosity of assassination and violent regime change and unaccountable underhanded ugliness and skullduggery. And drone warfare. Which is why Plato was right: poets should never get involved in politics.”
- “Nobody wants to read more than three books of poems by anyone. You see these poets who are up to seven, eight, nine books, ten, eleven books of poems. It’s grotesque. They should have stopped at four.” (For those of us who are stalled at a single book, this is greatly consoling news.)
You’ll also stop (or at least I stopped) at descriptions of a porcupine (with a “fade haircut”), a piece of gum (“lying like a tiny naked baby Jesus in the drain”), and two clouds (“shaped like ZiL limousines waiting for passengers near the horizon”). You’ll shrug in possible agreement with Chowder’s (or, again, Baker’s) takes on Monsanto and Amazon (“evil, truly evil” and “using its stock price to take over all of retailing and bankrupt the world,” respectively). You’ll cheer the return of Smacko the dog. You’ll wonder if Chowder’s figure for masturbation (“I waggled my Shropshire lad that night”) has ever been bettered.
When writing about Baker, all I want to do is quote. His sentences, which mix the high and the low, the lyrical and the deadpan, make me laugh or at least take notice more reliably than those of nearly any other contemporary American writer. And he’s been challenging my sometimes complacent views on American force for decades now. His 1991 New Yorker Comment, written after the first invasion of Iraq and ending with a Frostian conflation of fire, ice, and blood, still gives me chills. (A traveling sprinkler, by the way, is the sort of thing America used to invent before, in Baker’s words, “it threw itself wholeheartedly into the making of weapons that kill everyone.”)
Here are three more passages from Traveling Sprinkler that I’ll offer up as early Christmas presents:
- “You can’t include it all. You might think, I’ll write a poem and it will have every good thing in it, and every bad thing, and every middling thing—it’ll have Henry Cabot Lodge and clouds and eggplant and Chuck Berry and the new flavor of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and bantam roosters and gas stations and seafoam-green Vespa scooters and the oversalting of rural roads—but it doesn’t work. I’ve tried.”
- “I was out by the half-dead apple tree dancing to Phatso Brown’s remix of ‘Apes from Space’ when the man from Allstate arrived with his clipboard.” (God, that’s a good sentence.)
- “If you look at old musical scores, from the fifteenth century, they write the notes as little diamond shapes on a stave. Meanwhile the itinerant jongleurs were singing and clapping and writing nothing down. Having assignations in the beer pantry.”
A few years ago, on this blog, I considered (and, believe it or not, quoted and quoted from) The Anthologist. Since that time, I’ve taught the book in a course called “Baker’s Dozen: Poetry and Form.” I paired the novel with David Lehman’s Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms; using the two books as touchstones, my students and I explored rhyme and meter and the “paradoxically liberating effect” of constraints. (The quote comes from Ashbery, but nearly every poet in Lehman’s anthology says something similar.) Students became so invested in writing in form that, when they were asked to write a free verse poem later in the semester, they found the assignment vexing. As Molly Peacock reflects, in regard to her own history of imposing restrictions: “Having everywhere at my disposal, I would not have known where to go.” Baker, meanderer that he may be, would, I think, agree.