Nicholson Baker: What Makes a Great Poet?


What attracted me to The Anthologist was the reviews.  If you’ve never read a Nicholson Baker novel, and I hadn’t, not much really happens.  In great detail.  Minuscule detail.   Microscopic detail.

Not to make to fine a point of it, but, really, there you go.  Next to nothing at all happens.

The plot, or what little there is of one, centers around the poet and academic, Paul Chowder (since names are often significant in “literary” fiction, what’s up with Chowder?) , who has assembled an anthology of formal verse and needs to write a 40 page introduction so it can go to press.  Unfortunately for him, he encounters a case of writer’s block so severe not only does he not get the job done, but he loses his girlfriend in the process.

That’s some writer’s block.

Beyond those two plot lines, not writing the introduction and losing his girlfriend, really nothing else actually happens.   And now we come to the interesting part or, more precisely, the part that interested me.

In between his various ruminations on these two events, Paul Chowder thinks about poetry, all aspects of poetry: particular poets (W. S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, Louise Bogan, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson and many more are referenced and considered), particular styles of poetry, and the essence and importance of poetry to the human condition.  For me, this was the meat of the matter, rather like all those digressive chapters in Moby-Dick, the ones about whaling and sailing and philosophy and ships and scrimshaw and tattooing and on and on and on.

If you are still with me here, I rather think you’d like Nicholson Baker, even if you don’t like poetry.  I was fascinated by what this fictional character thought about all these real life poets and poetry conundrums.  It was quite like sitting and talking (well, more like sitting and listening) to a very knowledgable friend tell it like it is.  And Mr. Chowder, despite his less than gracious sounding name, is no elitist – he lets you know what he thinks is wrong with poets and/or poetry and he does it in an edifying, alluring manner.

What, you might ask, does a practicing poet and anthologist think makes a great poet?  Glad you asked.

What does it mean to be a great poet?  It means that you wrote one or two great poems.  Or great parts of poems.  That’s all it means.

What?  What?    A handful of poems makes a good poet?  Could that be?  Well, secretly, this is something I’ve believed all my life.  Let’s listen some more:

Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you.  Even in a big life like Louise Bogan’s or Theodore Roethke’s. … Or Howard Moss’s life, or Swinburne’s life, or Tennyson’s life-any poet’s life.  Out of the hundreds of poems two or three are really good.  Maybe four or five.  Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling.

And as I read this I kept thinking, “Yes, yes, that’s it, he’s got it exactly right – I’ve been thinking this forever.  Baker, or more precisely Chowder, continues:

In other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and then stop.  That won’t work. Nobody will give them the “great poet” label if they write just two great poems and nothing else.

There you have it.

Does Chowder ever finish his introduction to the anthology?  Does he get back together with girlfriend?  Is there a discernable denouement?  Well, the answer to at least one of these questions is yes but I won’t give away which one (or ones).    Rather than ruin the ending of a book wherein not much happens anyway, let’s listen to what Mr. Baker himself cares to say about what he was about and what he wanted to accomplish, courtesy of his publisher, Simon and Schuster:



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5 responses to “Nicholson Baker: What Makes a Great Poet?

  1. Tony

    Great post, Don – I’ve been recommending this book to friends for a couple weeks now, and I think I can steer them this way when they ask what I liked about it.

    – T

  2. Don

    Thanks, Tony … glad it captured that certain something …

  3. Pingback: Swan by Mary Oliver | Eleventh Stack

  4. Poetics
    As a long term editor, poetry writer and contributor to the study of poetry and poetics, I ‘d be very interested in exactly what Paul Chowder is saying about his litereray theories/philosophy. I’ve searhed the internet and not found a specific statement.
    Alisair Paterson, ONZM, NZ

  5. I’m looking forward to reading the book. As for the quotations about what makes a great poet, I would say that it depends on the “great poem”. If by 2 poems you mean sonnets, I’d claim 2 are NOT enough to be considered a great poet. If by two poems you mean those of comparable length and complexity of something like the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, then I might concede the narrator’s point. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Yeats all wrote 20 or more. To be given the golden label would require that the poet’s great poems show range, diversity of styles, and depth. Preferrably, he/she will have written both rhymed and free verse. In other words, just two beautiful love poems, each a single page, would be insufficient. One long poem can include a wide range of ideas and emotions, or 20 short ones may do something similar when considered together.

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