Playing by the rules

A second-tier poet, his own life a mess, offers an antic polemic on the reasons for rhyme

By William H. Pritchard
September 6, 2009

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The irrepressible protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s new novel, Paul Chowder, puts it like this at one point: “You know what? I could write forever. This is me. This is me you’re getting. Nobody else but me.’’ It’s a gloss, surely, on Baker’s extraordinary literary career.

Now in his early 50s, he has written eight novels; a collection of essays (“The Size of Thoughts’’), containing the brilliant “Lumber’’; “Double Fold,’’ about recent misbehavior by libraries over-anxious to shed their paper holdings by electronic conversion; and most recently, the controversial “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.’’ The novels range from exquisite birds’ eye presentations of the world’s minutiae (“The Mezzanine,’’ “A Box of Matches’’), to creative sexual fantasies (“Vox,’’ “The Fermata’’), to explorations of the mind of an 8-year-old girl (“The Everlasting Story of Nory’’) or of a distraught American determined to assassinate George W. Bush (“Checkpoint’’). What Baker’s novels as well as his essays have in common is an antic, humorous, uncanny sense of the physical constituents of things (how they are put together, how they work) and a conviction that what the writer has to say is absolutely original.

Chowder has written and published poems but is still waiting to come up with a “really good poem.’’ While waiting, he has assembled an anthology of rhyming verse for which he is trying, unsuccessfully, to write an introduction. His girlfriend, Roz, who had been supporting him financially, has moved out, tired of waiting for Chowder to write the introduction and (he admits) because he is “morose,’’ “shockingly messy,’’ and has “irregular sleeping habits.’’ A further complication is that while he is all in favor of poetry that rhymes, he has given it up in his own work, instead composing poems in unrhymed, free verse, which, he agrees with Robert Frost, is like “playing tennis without a net.’’ His distaste for free verse began in fourth grade when the teacher, encouraging students to write poems, assured them they didn’t need to rhyme. As Chowder translates it, “I am going to manacle your poor pliable brains with freedom. I’m going to insist that you must be free.’’ Watching her write “FREE VERSE’’ on the blackboard he disagrees “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. And if it doesn’t rhyme it’s just guano.’’

His polemic against free verse is one of many lively grindable axes that make up Chowder’s mind. He declares that listeners to pop songs know more than metrists do about the rhythms of poetry in English. Stale old words derived from the Greek, like iamb and trochee, impede rather than assist the reader. Iambic pentameter is a particular bête noir since, for Chowder, it’s the four-beat line that is essential to poetry. And poems have “rests’’ at the ends of their lines, as in this piece of light verse by Christopher Morley: “I had almost forgotten (rest)/ That words were made for rhyme: (rest)/ And yet how well I knew it - (rest)/ Once upon a time! (rest).’’ Chirps Chowder, excitedly, “Four beats in the line, the fourth beat being a rest. I hope you can hear it.’’

Alternating with these rants about the poetic “line’’ are delightful, unexpected (though whenever did Baker write what we “expect’’?) bits of life made into a poetry of the mundane. He tries to play badminton with a neighbor, gets entangled with his own dog, Smacko, bends down to pick up the shuttlecock, and has a nosebleed. While reading under a tree, an inchworm falls on his pant leg, looking “comfortably full of metamorphosive juices,’’ and he coaxes it into the hairs on the back of his hand. Slicing bread, he gets “a little jiggy with the bread knife’’ and cuts off “a small dome of my fingermeat,’’ then after having said “bad words and bled on the bread’’ he repositions the sliced-off part with two Band-Aids. Baker never writes an unplayful sentence: His violence upon language (Frost’s words again) is unremitting and comic.

But at the book’s heart are Chowder’s observations and formulations about the art of poetry, which, he notes, unlike prose has no “nonfictional’’ (as opposed to fictional) divisions. He calls it “a controlled refinement of sobbing’’; eventually he will burst into tears while giving a class at a poetry conference. There are wonderful aperçus about individual poets: We hear of Walt Whitman’s “preacherly ampersands,’’ while Longfellow and Whittier are “the two American G-rated graybeards.’’ Swinburne, the “nineteenth century’s King of Pain,’’ is also a great rhymer to whom Lorenz Hart, Gershwin, and other song writers are indebted. But like Chowder’s neighbor, who over-fertilized his lawn and managed to kill it, Swinburne wrote too much (“every poem was fully five times as long as it should have been’’) and in reaction came 20th-century modernism - free verse and no rhyme. There are many fine remarks about individual poems (three lively pages on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish’’) plus a vision of all the poets, including Chowder, occupying different places on an “infinitely tall ladder . . . up into the blinding blue. . . . Off to one side there’s Helen Vendler, in her trusty dirigible, filming the ascent.’’

My single favorite moment occurs in Chowder’s vision of Tennyson and Pope making their way around a restaurant salad bar, Tennyson trying to choose between the corn or the bean salad: “Which will it be today? ‘Into the valley of death, rode the six hundred!’ Plop - beans.’’ The happiest felicity in a book full of them is that such a loving and superbly witty homage to poetry - and to life - could have been achieved only through the prose sentences of Nicholson Baker.

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is the just-published “On Poets and Poetry.’’

By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 243 pp., $25

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