Can a novel capture contemporary poetry’s (dour, curmudgeonly) zeitgeist?

Nicholson Baker interviewed by Jesse Nathan
Poetry Media Service

Paul Chowder—the protagonist of Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist—is a minor poet. He writes forgettable verse. He is deeply enamored of rhyme and meter. He is suspicious of the waves of free verse that have flooded the last one hundred years of literary history.

The novel that unfolds centers on Chowder’s quest to finish a long-overdue introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry he’s editing.

I called Nick at his home in Maine to have a conversation about all this. What follows is what followed.

Jesse Nathan: Why a novel?

Nicholson Baker: Because some lines of poetry make me happy. How do you capture that pleasure? A novel lets you write sloppily about the things you love. You can be as selective as you want to. It’s very freeing, and it’s truer to the way poems live in the mind.

JN: Poetry is the art form you can carry in your head, and you can give it to somebody by opening your mouth and reciting, or you can say a line aloud to yourself in an empty hayloft. You can’t do that with any other art form.

NB: It’s true. You can’t carry around a Turner landscape and recite bits of it. You can hum a Brahms piano piece, but it isn’t the same.

JN: Paul Chowder says there’s too much poetry being written.

NB: It’s a feeling of simple unmanageability. So many poems every year. And the fearful onslaught of this much production, combined with the knowledge that you can’t possibly know where to find the gems, can be overwhelming. You need to find a rock and sit still for a bit.

JN: Paul Chowder is alarmingly normal. Is he too normal to be a great poet?

NB: I think that’s his deep fear. And it’s certainly—well, how much to say?—it has certainly been a worry of my own. He thinks that to be a great poet, you have to have a life marred by some kind of great . . .

JN: Pain?

NB: Pain, yes. But of course he’s wrong. It’s a fallacy. Even if he were in terrible pain, it wouldn’t guarantee that he had what it took to be a great poet.

JN: Why does so much American verse sound like it’s been translated from another language?

NB: Maybe it’s that certain poems are looking for some identifying plumage in order to say, “I’m a poem. I may be read aloud and then you won’t be able to see any of the oddities of my layout, but still I am a poem, I am speaking to you with a recognizably translated-sounding accent.” It’s kind of what happened to Poe. If you read “The Bells” or “The Raven,” I mean, it’s just a chocolate-covered cherry of lyricism, it’s so sweet. And then people like Mallarmé seized on those poems and translated them into beautiful pure French prose, and that de-rhymed prose fed back into American Modernist poetry. I think it was Alice Corbin Henderson in Poetry, way back when, who first wrote about that phenomenon: Poe in French translation fueled Modernism in English.

JN: Has poetry been important to your novel-writing?

NB: Yes, poetry taught me to write prose. I don’t have the talent to be a poet, and that’s a disappointment, of course, but there are other ways to put truths down on the page. So I felt that I could recover from the shock.

JN: Paul Chowder meditates on Marinetti, the Italian poet and the father of Futurism, and he describes the way Marinetti’s writing made a fetish of destruction, and how it emphasized the need for hardness and coldness and machinelike attitudes toward everything.

NB: Right, and this in turn so obviously overstimulated people like Ezra Pound and Benito Mussolini—and I’m sure you can take it too far almost instantly, because there are a lot of other reasons why huge, horrifying political movements arise, but at the very beginning there’s Marinetti.

JN: Paul very directly traces Marinetti’s ideas to the rise of fascism.

NB: And in some ways the question about the violent beginnings of Modernism is answered directly, because during the war Ezra Pound went even further off the deep end than Marinetti ever had.

JN: What is the question at the beginning of Modernism?

NB: What’s the energy that motivates us? Is it the energy to make new, or is it simply the desire to break? If it’s just to break, if it’s just hostility, then it doesn’t get you very far. And in Marinetti and Pound there’s an awful lot of hostility, and a bossiness, of insisting that your way is the right way. A really good poem makes its case without making its case. It doesn’t insist that its way is the only way. That’s what’s so beautiful about “The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop. She just bends over the fish and looks it in the eye and then lets it go. Her description of what happened is just one description. She’s not insisting on something big. She’s not a manifesto writer. She’s a letter writer. Those are the two antipodes of Modernism, I think: manifestoes versus letters. A letter is anchored in a single day and is to a particular person and is not attempting to change anything.

Jesse Nathan is an associate editor at McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco, managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and a contributing editor at theRumpus.net. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Adbusters, and elsewhere. This article first appeared at http://www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.

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