Kevin Saving on
by Nicholson Baker
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Prose in Slow Motion
'Paul Chowder' (the fictitious narrator of Nicholson Baker's latest, stream-of-consciousness novel) is - we're asked to believe - a middling, lower-high ranking American poet, once the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a rumoured long-list candidate for the Laureateship - now reduced to compiling an anthology of formal verse, provisionally entitled Only Rhyme.
'Chowder' comes kitted-out with a number of deeply-engrained beliefs/prejudices concerning modern poetry - plus an on-off relationship with a sympathetic-though-estranged girlfriend, 'Roz', (which serves as the novel's 'back-story'). He writes what he calls 'Plums' - trashy vers libre - but disparages the format, considering it 'prose in slow motion'. His 'narration' consists almost entirely of anecdotes, opinions, potted dissertations on the lives and works of favoured writers, and prosodic-metrical assertions (which I won't reproduce for fear of alienating non-partisan readers). I found it all quite fascinating - but, then, I suppose I would.
Baker, the novelist, is self-evidently a 'poetry buff'. Whether 'Paul Chowder''s tendentiously held views reflect his own (or not) is, of course, a matter for speculation. Only once - when 'Chowder' ventures that W.H.Auden's verse displays a marked decline from the time when he, Auden, began experimenting with amphetamines - did I find myself shaking my head in confirmed disagreement.
'Chowder'/Baker disdains unbridled Mod/post-Modernism, which he blames on the Futurist, proto-fascist Filippo Marinetti. He dislikes long poems. He's very cynical/undeceived about 'poetry politics'. He reckons real poetry is still operating, almost subliminally, certainly haphazardly, within pop lyrics and tv sit-coms. He feels that it may still be fostered by nursery rhymes and baby-talk - though it was almost annihilated by Algernon Charles Swinburne who, basically, was too proficient at it. He sees modern poets as competitively climbing a kind of vertiginous ladder-in-the-sky (watched by academic commentators like Helen Vendler who occupy a safe 'dirigable' off to one side). And, O yes, 'Iambic Pentameter' is a complete misnomer. 'Chowder'/Baker is both knowledgeable and 'funny' (the latter in a sly/sour/flippant way). His dicta have found a way of insinuating themselves semi-eradicably into my consciousness, a little after the manner of a pungent, chip-shop aroma into a shirt's fabric. I must confess that I'm genuinely grateful to Nicholson Baker for causing me to revisit the work of Sara Teasdale.
Eventually, I found myself asking: can The Anthologist be numbered amongst the 'Great Novels'? Will it be read in one hundred years time? The answer to both questions (and I suspect Baker might even agree) is a sympathetic, emphatic, 'No'. Perhaps 'Chowder' would have done better to disseminate his anthology (rather than his own, fairly execrable, verse); or Baker could have written the academic study which this book so nearly is - even in the knowledge that his sales would diminish exponentially. Somehow, the 'Human interest' factor remains absent (for all of Paul and Roz's semi-detached chaconne). A curio rather than a 'classic', a 'good read' rather than a good book,The Anthologist, like its fictive protagonist, remains something of a 'striver': a 'contender', but of robust, Second Division status.
Kevin Saving © 2010