by David Lehman
Over the years I’ve read novels centering on lawyers, doctors, diplomats, teachers, financiers, even car salesmen and dentists, but not until 2009 did I come across one about the travails of the editor of a poetry anthology. When word of The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker’s new novel, reached me last September, I couldn’t wait to read it. Baker’s novels defy convention and reveal an obsessive nature, and I wondered what he would make of American poetry, for surely his novel would reflect a strenuous engagement with the art. The title character here, Paul Chowder by unfortunate name, has put together an anthology of poems he is calling Only Rhyme. The phrase describes the notional book’s contents and indicates the editor’s conception of poetic virtue. Paul has chosen the contents of his anthology but is now, on the eve of a deadline, afflicted with writer’s block. He needs to write a foreword but cannot. “How many people read introductions to poetry anthologies, anyway?” he wonders, then volunteers, “I do, but I’m not normal.”
Having asked myself that same question and given a similar answer, I can appreciate the speaker’s troubling awareness of the many poets who have to be left out of his book—and the relatively few people who will bother to read his introductory essay. The task of writing a prefatory note becomes no less difficult when it is an annual requirement, though Nicholson Baker may have made my job a little easier this time around. Every editor has the impulse to use the introductory space to open the door, welcome the guest, and disappear without further ado. But some things are worth saying, and one such is Baker’s defense of anthologies. For a poet facing all the perils that lurk in a poet’s path—a poet very like the novel’s Paul Chowder—anthologies represent the possibility of a belated second chance. And it is that possibility, however slim, that spurs the poet to stick to a vocation that offers so much resistance and promises so few rewards. The “you” in these sentences refers to the American poet—and perhaps to American poetry itself, an oddity in an age that worships celebrity. “You think: One more poem. You think: There will be some as yet ungathered anthology of American poetry. It will be the anthology that people tote around with them on subways thirty-five, forty years from now.” The poet’s conception of fame exists within modest limits, but it is persistent: “And you think: Maybe the very poem I write today will somehow pry open a space in that future anthology and maybe it will drop into position and root itself there.”
Baker’s skeptical distance from the fray makes his take on things particularly compelling. The opinions he puts forth are provocative and entertaining. A proponent of the sit-com as the great American art form, Baker’s anthologist believes that “any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published.” That is quite a statement, even allowing for the complexity of irony. (After all, to be “uplifting for the human spirit” may not be the ideal criterion by which to judge poetry or history.) The speaker establishes his credentials as an American poet with his realism for self-pity’s sake. He suspects that poets form a “community” only in the realm of piety: “We all love the busy ferment, and we all know it’s nonsense. Getting together for conferences of international poetry. Hah! A joke. Reading our poems. Our little moment. Physical presence. In the same room with. A community. Forget it. It’s a joke.”
Baker (or his mouthpiece) likes Swinburne, Poe, Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, and the contemporary British poets Wendy Cope and James Fenton. He disapproves of free verse, distrusts the “ultra-extreme enjambment” that you find in William Carlos Williams or Charles Olson, and argues that “iambic pentameter” is something of a hoax. As for the unrhymed poems that dominate literary magazines and university workshops, he feels it would be more accurate to call them “plums” and their authors “plummets” or “plummers.” How did we get to this state of affairs? In Baker’s account, the chief villain is Ezra Pound, “a blustering bigot—a humorless jokester—a talentless pasticheur—a confidence man.” Pound advocated modernism in verse with the same bullying arrogance that went into his radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini, and that is no accident, because the impulse that led to fascism also gave rise to modern poetry. Modernism as Pound preached it and T. S. Eliot practiced it—in The Waste Land, “a hodge-podge of flummery and borrowed paste”—was, in short, probably as ruinous for the art of verse as fascism was for Europe. The popularity of translations, especially prose versions of exotic foreign verse rendered from a language that the translator doesn’t know, also did its part to hasten the “death of rhyme.”
The views articulated in The Anthologist are antithetical to contemporary practice in ways that recall Philip Larkin’s conviction that Pound ruined poetry, Picasso ruined painting, and Charlie Parker ruined jazz: the dissenting position, pushed to an amusing extreme, and stated with uncompromising intelligence. The narrator can sound a sour note. To teach creative writing to college students is to be “a professional teller of lies,” he maintains, gleefully quoting Elizabeth Bishop on the subject: “I think one of the worst things I know about modern education is this ‘Creative Writing’ business.” Nevertheless Baker’s opinions are worth pondering, especially when the “difficulty versus accessibility” question becomes the subject of debate. And his advice to the aspiring poet is astute. Don’t postpone writing the poem, he says. “Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s Best American Poetry and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.”
The Anthologist was well received and prominently reviewed in book supplements that rarely notice poetry books, let alone anthologies of them, except with a certain contempt, which was a mild irony but an old story. Some laudatory articles went so far as to declare that “you” will enjoy the work “even if you generally couldn’t care less about verse.” But then, when poetry or the teaching of poetry is discussed, commentators have a hard time avoiding a note of condescension. Poetry is called a “lost art.” It is thought to be something young people go through, a phase; something you have to apologize for, as when a poet at a reading reassures the audience that only three more poems remain on the docket. And yet poetry retains its prestige. The term exists as a sort of benchmark in fields ranging from politics to athletics. Columnists enjoy reminding newly elected officials that “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose”—an axiom that aligns poetry on the side of idealism and eloquence against the bureaucratic details and inconveniences of prosaic administration. In the Financial Times, the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý, who spied on women with his homemade viewfinder, “stealing their likenesses as they giggled, gossiped and dreamed,” is described as “a peeping Tom with a poet’s eye.” Of Nancy Pelosi, readers of Time learned that, to the Speaker’s credit, when a colleague’s mother dies, she “encloses a poem written by her own mother with her condolence.” In the same issue of the magazine, a flattering profile of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, appeared. During the Iraq war, McChrystal sent copies of “The Second Coming” to his special operators, challenging them to flip the meaning of Yeats’s lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Has there ever been a really good movie about a poet as opposed to the many excellent movies in which poetry is quoted to smart effect? Bright Star, Jane Campion’s film about the ill-starred romance of John Keats and the barely legal Fanny Brawne, came out in 2009 and showed there is life left in the familiar stereotype of the consumptive poet burning a fever for love. Campion won over Quentin Tarantino. “The movie made me think about taking a writing class,” the director of Pulp Fiction said. “One of the best things that can happen from a movie about an author is that you actually want to read their work.” On television, poetry continues to put in regular appearances on The PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and sometimes sneaks into scripted shows. When an advertising copywriter on Mad Men loses his job, he doesn’t take it well. He “did not go gentle into that good night,” an ex-associate observes. The critic Stephen Burt believes that Project Runway holds some useful lessons for poetry critics: “Project Runway even recalls the famous exercises in ‘practical criticism’ performed at the University of Cambridge in the 1920s, in which professor I. A. Richards asked his students to make snap judgments about unfamiliar poems.” I have commented on the inspired way that quotations from poems turn up in classic Hollywood movies, and if you’re lucky enough to catch It’s Always Fair Weather the next time Robert Osborne shows it on TCM, you’ll see a superb 1950s movie musical (music by André Previn, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) that sums itself up brilliantly in three lines from As You Like It that enliven a conversation between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Meanwhile, you can’t pull the wool over the creative writers responsible for Law and Order: Criminal Intent. In a 2009 episode, a celebrated campus bard is murdered by his ex-girlfriend, who is handy with a knife. Has he been pimping out his attractive young assistants to wealthy donors? After learning how rotten the poets are to one another, the major case squad detective says that if her daughter ever says she wants to be a poet, she’d tell her to join the Mafia instead: “Nicer people.” As convalescents confined to hospital beds know, you can go wall to wall with reruns of Law and Order, and sure enough, the day after this episode aired I saw a rerun of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, in which the villain is a nerdy insurance man, an actuary with Asperger’s syndrome, whose name is Wallace Stevens. The detectives call him Wally affectionately. I spent the rest of my bedridden day with Stevens’s collected poems.
Haaretz, Israel’s oldest Hebrew-language daily, turned over its pages entirely to poets and novelists for one day in June 2009. The results were unsurprising in some ways (a lot of first-person point of view) but inventive and unconventional in the coverage of the stock market (“everything okay”) and the weather (a sonnet likening summer to an unsharpened pencil). The experiment reminded me of W. S. Di Piero’s assertion that the writing of good prose is the acid test of a poet’s intelligence. “Some shy from putting prose out there because it’s a giveaway,” Di Piero has written. “You can’t fake it. It reveals quality of mind, for better or worse, in a culture where poems can be faked. Find a faker and ask him or her to write anything more substantial than a jacket blurb, and the jig is up.” When we posted Di Piero’s remark on the Best American Poetry blog, Sally Ashton added an apt simile (a poem can be faked “like an orgasm”) and a few inevitable questions (“Who is fooled? Who benefits?”). Speaking of the BAP blog, there are days when it resembles nothing so much as a cross-cultural newspaper written by poets and poetry lovers. Recent visitors to the BAP blog could read Catharine Stimpson’s reaction to homicidal violence at the University of Alabama; Lewis Saul’s meticulously annotated commentary on thirty films by Akira Kurosawa; Jennifer Michael Hecht’s heartfelt plea to poets contemplating the suicide of Rachel Wetzsteon (“don’t kill yourself”); Laura Orem’s obituaries for Lucille Clifton, Jean Simmons, and J. D. Salinger; Katha Pollitt on Berlin in the fall; Larry Epstein on Bob Dylan; Ken Tucker on new books of poetry; Todd Swift on young British poets; Phoebe Putnam on the covers poets choose for their books; Mitch Sisskind’s “poetic tips of the day” (e.g., “Secrecy sustains the world”); Gabrielle Calvocoressi at the sports desk; Terence Winch on Irish American music; Stacey Harwood on nocino, the Italian liqueur made from under-ripe green walnuts; and a James Cummins epigram entitled “Anti-Confessional”: “What it was like, I don’t recall, or care to; / believe me, you should be grateful I spare you.”
The Best American Poetry anthology itself, now in its twenty-third year, remains committed to the idea that American poetry is as vital as it is various and that it is possible to capture the spirit of its diversity and a measure of its excellence in an annual survey of our magazines, in print or online. As the selections are made by a different editor each year, each a distinguished practitioner, the series has inevitably become an annotated chronicle of the taste of our leading poets. I persuaded Amy Gerstler to make the selections for the 2010 edition of The Best American Poetry because of my delight in her poems and my respect for her judgment, and it was wonderful to work with her. Amy’s new book, Dearest Creature, came out last year, and augmented her reputation as arguably the most inventive and ambitious poet of her generation. Gerstler can be very funny without forfeiting her right to be taken seriously; she has a quality of sincerity, of truth-telling, that can coexist with the most sophisticated of comic sensibilities. Her poems of deep feeling may take on an insouciant disguise: a letter to a cherished niece about the virtues of an encyclopedia, a conversation between a black taffeta and strapless pink dress, a riff consisting entirely of slang phrases from the not too distant past. Yet always at the heart of the poetry is an insight into the human condition and the ability to state it simply and powerfully: “Some of us grow up doing / credible impressions of model citizens / (though sooner or later hairline / cracks appear in our facades). The rest / get dubbed eccentrics, unnerved and undone / by other people’s company, for which we / nevertheless pine.” David Kirby reviewed Dearest Creature in The New York Times Book Review. “Gerstler is skilled in every kind of comedy, from slapstick to whimsy,” Kirby wrote. “Yet there’s a deep seriousness in every one of these poems, like the plaintive ‘Midlife Lullaby,’ in which the cow who is now the meatloaf in somebody’s sandwich speaks of life’s passing pleasures as hauntingly as one of those skeletons who tend to pop up in medieval allegories to remind young knights of their mortality.” Kirby concluded his review with a ringing endorsement: “In Amy Gerstler I trust.”
The world has been slow to react to the case of Saw Wai, the imprisoned Burmese poet who was arrested two years ago for publishing a love poem for Valentine’s Day with a secret message critical of Burma’s military dictator, Than Shwe. But the story refuses to die, and the anonymously translated poem itself has now been published (in Pen America) and reprinted (in Harper’s, in February 2010). What early journalistic accounts called a “straightforward” or “innocuous” love poem turns out to be something much richer and stranger. Entitled “February 14,” Saw Wai’s poem, which appeared in the Rangoon magazine The Love Journal, was initially said to have been a torch song to the fashion model who rejected the poet but taught him the meaning of love. Nothing of the sort. It exemplifies rather a particular strain of modernist poetry, the leading-edge poems of the 1930s that were aped (and perfected) by the Australian hoax poet Ern Malley. The poem is an acrostic—that is, the first letters of the lines, when read down vertically, spell out a message, and in this case that message is, “General Than Shwe is power crazy.” In Burmese, Than means “million” and Shwe means “gold,” so when Saw Wai concludes his poem with the injunction “Millions of people / Who know how to love / Please clap your gilded hands / And laugh out loud,” he is secretly urging his compatriots to laugh the “power crazy” head of the junta off the stage. It took courage to write these lines. It also took an extraordinary talent for modern poetry considered as a kind of cipher, and the result in its English translation might be read as either a brief for the methods of modernism or a textbook illustration of what Nicholson Baker would have us see as the tempting dangers of the non-rhyming, prose-saturated “plum”:
Only once you have experienced deep pain
And like an adolescent
Thought the blurred photo of a model
Can you call it heartbreak.
Millions of people
Who know how to love
Please clap your gilded hands
And laugh out loud.
1. Walter Conrad Arensberg, the noted art collector and donor of great paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wrote The Cryptography of Shakespeare (1922), purporting to find, in the Bard’s plays, anagrams and acrostics that prove Francis Bacon’s authorship. Arensberg wrote symbolist-influenced poetry, but it is conceivable that spurious cryptography is his real contribution to the radical element in modern poetry.
© 2010 David Lehman