In 'The Anthologist' Nicholson Baker turns his prose microscope on the world of American verse. Geoff Dyer reads a meticulously observed tale of one poet's anguished inability to write. The Anthologist Nicholson Baker Simon & Schuster Dh90 Visitors to America are always impressed by the material prosperity: vast retail outlets, enormous cappuccinos, refrigerators the size of spare bedrooms. Tourists of a literary bent are likely to be struck by a different kind of abundance, namely the mind-blowing production of poetry. Chap books; slim albums from obscure university presses; slender hardbacks from the big New York houses; Collected Poems by the big hitters; New and Collected Poems by the big hitters who have kept right on hitting; and finally - definitively, posthumously - extensively annotated volumes of Complete Poems, which double as a bulky death certificate. What better proof could there be that a society has achieved Marx's dream of "freedom from the realm of necessity" than this torrent of inessentials called poetry? At times the dream takes on a nightmarish tinge, a Weimaresque vision of poetic hyper-inflation in which authors trundle around wheelbarrows crammed with volumes of verse, worth less, in cash terms, than the paper they're printed on, but still, amazingly, churned out and cherished.
Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's latest sort-of-novel, is a contributor to this burgeoning GPP (Gross Poetic Product). He's the author of several volumes, has received a grant from the Guggenheim - but then who hasn't? - was once rumoured to be a contender for the Poet Laureateship, and has been commissioned to put together an anthology of rhyming poetry. This is all to his credit. On the debit side, he hasn't written much for ages, is short of money (he quit working on the coalface of the US poetry industry, i.e. teaching) and is so stalled over the introduction to his anthology that his girlfriend, Roz, has left him. Actually, that's not the only reason she jumped ship: there was also the fact that he "got farty when we had Caesar salads". Ah ha! That's a nice touch, isn't it? That's the Bakeresque twist and detail, casual as Banana Republic chinos and so specific that a vast truth - about men, relationships, flatulence and salads - seems curled up within it.
Baker can get a lot more specific than that. The action of his first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), was squeezed into (or should that be expanded from?) the duration of the narrator's lunch hour and touched on some of the big questions of the day: the relative merits of plastic rather than paper straws; why the laces on his left shoe - or maybe it was the right, I'm not about to check - always broke ahead of the ones on the other foot. In last year's Human Smoke Baker cast his microscopic eye over the build-up to and early years of the Second World War. A vastly ambitious, highly original collage of anecdote and public happenings, the book gives a dreadful sense both of "the grain of events" and the gathering storm of inevitable (Baker argues avoidable) conflagration. That project demanded the suppression of the authorial personality that lent his book on John Updike, U and I (1991), its transfixing energy and power. All the anxieties of influence, admiration and ambition are here laid bare with excruciating clarity and shameless hilarity.
The Anthologist lacks that outrageous brio. Partly this is because one does not get the same excited sense of compulsive self-revelation that animated U and I (even if many of the revelations in what was cleverly subtitled A True Story were imagined). Partly it's for the simple - and not unrelated - reason that Chowder is a depressed middle-rank loner. Basically, Chowder potters around at home and in the countryside near Plymouth, Massachusetts telling us about his neighbours, the progress he's making on clearing out his office (a prelude to and substitute for making progress on his introduction) and his hopes of getting Roz back. Oh, and he tells us pretty much everything he knows about poetry (which means telling us everything he knows about life).
Amid all Chowder's mumbling there are bursts and passages of the longed-for Baker dazzle. There's the way that the eyes of old poets "look like flesh wounds with eyeballs tossed loosely into them"; there's the high estimation of a lobster roll as "one of the towering meals of the modern period"; there's a denunciation of English language haiku as bogus; there's lots of griping about "the thrilling negative energy" of modernism and a reading of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" that's as exciting as lit crit can ever get; and there's an extended riff on how a week goes from optimism on Monday to the awful point when "suddenly, you're driving under that huge tattered banner, with that T and that H and that U and that frightening R and the appalling S - THURSDAY - and you slide down the steep slope toward the clacking shredder blades that wait on Sunday afternoon.". There's also a magnificent moment - reminiscent of similar episodes in U and I - when, at a poetry boondoggle in Switzerland, "suddenly word flew through the room like wildfire [that] Paul Muldoon was there! Paul Muldoon! Paul Muldoon!" Yes, Paul Muldoon, poet and poetry editor of the New Yorker: a household name in a world - the poetry world! - of which most households are happily ignorant.
The thing about most of these touches is that one completely forgets that it is Chowder who is supposed to be speaking-writing. Now I, of all people, am not about to get my knickers in a twist as to whether The Anthologist is really a novel. As Baker/Chowder reminds us, poetry is not divided up into fiction and non-fiction; it's all just poetry, some great, some good and quite a lot of it not so good. With prose, as Chowder suggests, we "want to know: Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction?" Personally, I don't care as long as I'm having a good time. And reading The Anthologist I often felt that I wasn't having quite as good a time as I needed to be having in order to stop me wondering why I wasn't having a better time.
U and I had no plot or story-line. It didn't need one: Baker's voice was enough. This time around the novelish elements - will Roz come back, will Chowder get his introduction written? - feel like a form of structural compensation for a dimming of Baker's lights or at least an uncertainty as to whether free-standing discursive improv can support itself over a longish distance. As Chowder is preparing his anthology he comes to the conclusion that most poets write only a few good poems. Then he goes a stage further and decides that most good poems only have a few good lines. Then, for one glorious moment, he considers reducing his anthology to the barest essentials, to the single word that makes a great line great, so that Thomas Wyatt's sonnet with the wonderful opening line, "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek", will be represented solely by "sometime".
It's a bonkers idea, but as we all know, any given sentence can be galvanised by a single surprising word (which is also, as Yeats reminds us, exactly the right word). On a second reading, I became aware of how often, in The Anthologist, that word failed to show up. As a result, some of the paragraphs and sentences of The Anthologist are surprisingly dull. It's so unexpected - Baker, dull? Silly (as Auden said of Yeats) yes, but dull? - that it takes a while to sink in. But how else to regard the following?
"I packed four boxes of papers in my office, and I threw out lots of things. This cleaning is helping me move forward. I put the chin-up bar in the door and hit my head on it twice because I forgot it was there. Then I put it down and put it in another door." Granted, we are dealing with a heart-broken man succumbing to apathy and depression, a poet in the course of becoming an ex-poet. If poetry is, as Chowder claims, "a controlled refinement of sobbing" then The Anthologist may be poetry - or sobbing - of a kind but, as he says censoriously of the poems of John Ashbery, it "doesn't sing. " (It goes without saying that few things can sing as beautifully as a sob.) Sentences follow each other, but for stretches at a time they don't flow.
Note also the lack of Baker's usual oblique observational acuity. We want him to notice stuff only he could notice and name (as when Chowder opens the freezer and contemplates "the motionless mists in there"); it's disappointing to find him relying on what might be called generic detail: "I'm still packing up my anthologies. Here's another one - Bullen's Shorter Elizabethan Poems. It's blue and heavy and dusty. Anthologies should be blue I think. Although I love the anthology by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, The Rattle Bag. It's green with the 'ff' of the Faber logo all over it."
Reading The Anthologist is like driving on a congested freeway: you lurch frustratingly forward a few feet - a few sentences - at a time. Occasionally the way ahead clears and you think, "Great, now we're really going to get moving", which only makes the next stop-start interlude more frustrating. "If you have something to say," Chowder warns prospective poets, "say it. Don't save it up." What Chowder wants to say is endlessly deferred. Or rather, what he wants to say is inextricably bound up with its being gradually elaborated on and constantly brooded over. Baker, in other words, is playing for the highest stakes in that he has to make readers relish revelation in the form of incremental postponement. Yes, life is "full of untold particulars"; Baker has notified us of that particular truth many times before. And we know that "the thing about life is that life is an infinite subject matter" but we don't have an infinite amount of time and patience for inventories of the finite, however meticulously catalogued, unless we are rewarded, on a regular basis, with glimpses of the overlooked miraculousness of the ordinary (the kind of thing, in fact, often found in poetry). There is a realm of achievement in which we are held, spellbound, by the ordinariness of the ordinary, but to persuade readers to hang in there for any length of time requires the kind of narrative power that Baker has never made any attempt to harness. Relying on a minimum of narrative traction - a lot less than routinely rustled up by Updike in his low-propulsion fiction - Baker makes enormous demands on his ability to glue the reader to each page as if it were a poem. At over 200 pages The Anthologist does not quite conform to Chowder's dismissive view of most long poems, "a few green stalks of asparagus amid the roughage". There is actually a fair amount of very tasty asparagus - but there's a whole lot of roughage too.
Geoff Dyer is the author of 11 books including, most recently, the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.