The Science of the Iambs
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
(Simon & Schuster, 2009, 243 pp.)
Auden once suggested that the difference between ‘major writers’ and ‘minor writers’ is that the major writers are ‘engaged in perpetual endeavours’ — unafraid to explore new styles and new approaches, even if the price of innovation is failure. By contrast, ‘the minor writer works on one masterpiece with the idea of bringing it to perfection in its kind.’ Prolificacy becomes a necessary condition of greatness.
It seems staggeringly arrogant to dismiss certain one masterpiece wonders (Cervantes, Proust, perhaps Harper Lee) as ‘minor’, but the ability to move ceaselessly through styles over the course of an entire career is certainly worthy of admiration, and perhaps rarer than most readers would imagine. Auden identifies Shakespeare as the supreme exemplar of the shape-shifting writer, but what of contemporary authors? Many of the ‘big names’ are known for a single, overpoweringly strong style: García Marquez will always be a ‘magical realist’, Marías and Bernhard masters of the long sentence, Roth the unflinching chronicler of selfishness and greed.
Nicholson Baker, on the other hand, has covered everything from the internal monologue of a man on a lunch break to the hypothetical assassination of George W. Bush, changing styles from a footnote-heavy first novel to a mid-career novel built entirely around phone sex between two strangers. He moves fluidly from the sublime to the ridiculous, from ‘the mystery of what life actually is’ (The Mezzanine) to an earnest discussion on whether ‘frans’ would be a better word for breasts (Vox).
His most recent full-length novel, The Anthologist, is a concise history of modern poetry, but it also finds time to document the (possible) end of an eight-year relationship, and time for a digression on butter (‘Real butter is flavoured with butter flavour. Just think about that.’), and time to propose that ‘the sitcom is the great American art form.’
Baker’s anthologist is Paul Chowder, an apparently mediocre poet attempting to put together an anthology of rhyming poetry (‘I want to include a Charles Causley poem, and a Wendy Cope poem, and a James Fenton poem’) and repeatedly failing to meet his publisher’s deadline. His monologue — Baker talked to himself on tape for 40 hours in attempt to get Chowder’s voice right — is broken by attempts to placate his exasperated ex-girlfriend (Roz), various clumsily self-inflicted injuries, and a prolonged battle with a mouse (‘He wasn’t discouraged by the Boraxo I sprinkled around, or the spritzes of Windex. I set up a humane trap of a toilet-paper tube with a dab of peanut butter on the end… but he wasn’t fooled.’).
Baker is good on both the big overarching themes and the forgotten minutiae. He is serious about poetry (which Paul Chowder defines — unrhymed poetry at least — as ‘prose in slow motion’), but the seriousness is always tempered by the recognition that all that matters now will ultimately be rendered insignificant by history. The march of history turns out to be like the march of those possibly imaginary army ants which devour everything in their path. Baker makes space for poets already being devoured by history (Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale), and space for poets who have been devoured and regurgitated (Aphra Behn, dismissed in a Victorian book called The Wit of Women as ‘remembered only to be despised for her vulgarity… so wicked and coarse that she forfeited all right to fame.’). Finally, he acknowledges that the language, too, ‘is going to perish. The easy spokenness of it will perish… and it will become a language like Latin that learned people learn.’
Chowder’s anthology and, by extension, Baker’s novel are both perhaps futile endeavours when seen with the eyes of eternity, but so little of life is about the grand concepts and few writers illustrate that point as fluidly as Baker. Shortly after Chowder has finished reflecting on the end of the English language, he finds himself concentrating on the way ‘a tablecloth catches the ottoman of the air as it settles down on a metal table.’ An analytical passage on Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ is followed by ‘a blueberry-picking date with Tim and Tim’s new girlfriend Hannah and Hannah’s friend Marie.’
We may think about the clumsy enjambment in ‘Ozymandias’ (‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert’), but we’re also — almost simultaneously — thinking about how to get back together with an ex, or how to humanely trap a mouse, or whether today’s the right day to mow the lawn. As Andrew Motion recognised in an earlier review of The Anthologist, ‘Chowder’s/Baker’s distractedness is both the obstacle to his writing and its source.’ Chowder is an inveterate procrastinator (‘I looked for an hour for a certain file in my office…’, ‘I’ll spend an hour writing a tiny e-mail), but most writers will feel some familiarity with the idea that small, quotidian forms of procrastination serve to stunt and spur the creative process.
Throughout the novel, the balance between the specific and the general is more or less perfect. Chowder/Baker obsesses over the finer details (‘Today the clouds have been sprayed on the sky with a number 63 narrow-gauge titanium sprayer tip’), and that capacity for close analysis is behind the novel’s big idea: the idea that iambic pentameter doesn’t exist.
That’s worth saying again: Baker’s/Chowder’s big idea is that the rhythm that has supposedly underpinned English poetry for the last half a millennium has never existed. ‘Five beats’, says Chowder, ‘would be totally off-kilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable… Really, I mean it.’
Chowder re-examines lines written ‘in what the experts call iambic pentameter’, frequently setting them to music, and notices that few lines have five equally strong beats. One example used is Dryden’s ‘All human things are subject to decay…’ — ‘to’, which should be the fourth stress in the line, is obviously weaker, which shifts emphasis onto the final syllable. For Chowder, this is a four-beat line. And four beats (or, occasionally, ‘a kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto’) form the foundation of the average English line.
Everything from Poe’s Raven (‘And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain’) to Ludacris’ ‘Shake your money maker like somebody ‘bout to pay ya’ builds on the four-beat line. Until you run up against the sort of thumping mid-seventeenth-century iambic line which begins Gray’s Elegy (‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’) or, in the example cited by Chowder, Samuel Johnson’s ‘How small, of all that human hearts endure…’ Ingeniously, Chowder explains these apparent five-beat lines by adding in ‘a raven of rest.’ Here’s Johnson’s line with the black raven making a sudden appearance at the end:
How small, of all that human hearts endure (CRAW!)
For Chowder, the rest is part of the line: ‘If you leave out those raven squawks… you are not going to be able to say this couplet the way [it was intended] to be said.’ In other words, the ‘pentameter’ line really consists of two three-beat lines, with the rest providing the final beat.
What purpose does this wonderful close analysis serve at a time when both rhythm and metre seem to be losing the battle against free verse? Perhaps no purpose at all, which is precisely why a lesser writer would have steered clear of producing something like The Anthologist. As with most of Nicholson Baker’s novels, The Anthologist was tentatively praised by the critics and then emphatically ignored by the prize juries — from the narrow perspective of the marketing department, it was a failure. But, returning to Auden’s idea, isn’t the courage to risk failure an essential attribute of the major writer? Is failure perhaps a necessary part of success?