Maybe I got to a point where the thrill of the first encounter was gone. Maybe I was dismayed, having burned through all the writers I’d discovered whose work resonated with me. Maybe feeling I was always missing something finally caught up with me and I gave up.
So I stopped almost cold turkey. There were a few false starts, moments when I hoped I’d encountered a new voice–maybe one more contemporaneous–but then the second encounter would fail. So I picked up a few authors to keep track of and moved on to nonfiction and social science where there was always some new tidbit to enjoy.
As a result I missed the debut of Nicholson Baker. That was almost thirty years ago and although I was late to the party the present volume is not my first encounter. In fact, Baker and I have met on several occasions prior to this.
Writers have reputations which is another way of saying someone pasted a label on them and it stuck. Baker’s label is miniaturist. I’m not sure I ever knew what that meant. Informed rumour has it that his first novel, which is in a box or pile somewhere around here, is about buying a pair of socks.
This relatively recent (2009) novel is about something weightier than socks: poetry. At least that’s what I think it’s about.
If I often feel I’m missing something in a novel, poetry terrifies me. All that erudition and cognition fitted into a compact package, it’s enough to make me quake in my boots. The fact that I often don’t know what’s going on is practically an afterthought.
Paul Chowder might be able to help. Chowder is the narrator of this novel that might be more of a rumination on the current state of poetry. And the current state of poetry is, well, almost rhyme-free. This troubles Chowder, and presumably Baker, because as a poet himself (a rather minor poet he lets us know) he believes the magic of the form lies in the rhyme.
I have a lot of sympathy with that position. Song lyrics, even long stretches of rap, easily lodge in my brain for almost instant recall. And though I’ve read non-rhyming poems that I thought had real power, the words didn’t stick around.
(Complete aside: I once read that by age 40 a man should have memorized a poem. As usual, I cheated. Here’ s mine, in its entirety . You’ll note it rhymes:
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
When we meet Paul he’s alone, in a house in Maine, struggling with a number of things. The woman in his life has left, in part, because she can’t watch him stagnate any more.
Maybe stagnate is too strong a word but he is definitely stuck. At the outset he’s past, on his way to well past, deadline on the introduction to an anthology of poems that he is collecting. They are rhyming poems and something about the state of poetry, and its abhorrence of rhyme, has stopped him dead in his tracks, despairing that his book could make a difference even as he harbors secret dreams that it becomes a staple of college English programs.
There are near countless reasons for his paralysis. Who to leave in? Who to leave out? What can be said? What should be said? What if no one wants to hear what can or should be said? Isn’t all this decision-making beyond the ken of any one human being? The man ties himself up in knots.
How to get past those knots? Why with long digressions about the nuts and bolts of poetry, of course. Because under the hood there’s a lot going on. One of the more interesting things about Baker is that he’s also a musician. I don’t mean someone with rudimentary ability like me but rather someone who attended and graduated a conservatory school. In other words, the real deal.
A number of Baker’s book have related to music. The Fermata and Vox especially, although each of those drips with sex if recall serves correctly. Here he dwells on the importance of rhythm in poetry. Chowder is forever setting poems to music and staves appear throughout the book with punctuated verse.
He dwells at length on iambic pentameter, often cited as the most common meter used in English-language poetry. Chowder (or is it Baker) asserts that this is malarkey. He devotes huge chunks of text to demonstrating that the natural rhythm of English is a 4-beat measure.
To illustrate he counts out numerous poems, indicating the unvoiced yet obviously present beat that lays the beloved IP on the floor. He’s on to something here, I think. So much so that I’m even willing to accept it might be academic envy of French which, he tells us, more naturally falls into that allegedly foundational English meter.
It’s Baker, though, so there’s a lot of, I guess there’s no other word, minutiae. Chowder helps lay a floor. He cleans his office. He beads. He delivers the bracelet to his ex. He sits on a chair in his driveway and looks at mud puddles. He has a wordless interplay with a mouse.
It probably all means something. What always strikes me when reading Baker is how effortless he makes it seem. The detail. The flow. The ideas. The digressions that meander back to the main thread and then away again.
It’s the literary equivalent of Shaker furniture: it appears so simple that you have to look, and look hard, to see the artistry. But it’s there in abundance.
While much of the book takes place on one piece of property, and much of the rest in one New England town, there is, near the end, a side trip to Switzerland. It’s at a conference, no, a Congress, a Global Congress, of poets, that Chowder gets unblocked.
The end is at once too neat and just right. The anthology finished, the introduction written, new poems drafted, new tasks to fill one’s days, a new understanding of what his ex thinks of him.
It would be lamentably sentimental if it weren’t so artfully done.