Tag Archives: Nicholson Baker

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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Life on Mars & The Mezzanine

Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?

These questions inform the 55th Carnegie International, opening May 3 and running through January 11, 2009, at the Carnegie Museum of Art. In his Curator’s web introduction, Douglas Fogle writes “Life on Mars is a collective self-portrait of humanity colliding with the economic and political events that define daily existence. Questions of our survival are humorously and poignantly brought to the fore in films, installations, paintings, sculptures, and photographs that search for the sublime in the banality of everyday life.”

Searching for and finding the sublime in everyday life is also the subject of one of my favorite novels, The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. The Mezzanine will be the first subject of the Life on Mars Book Club, co-hosted by CLP’s First Floor – New & Featured Department and CMOA.

The Mezzanine describes a single escalator ride. The plot is simply an office worker returning to his desk after lunch. But Howie, not an ordinary office worker, is fascinated by the minutiae of everyday life.  His analysis of the way shoe laces wear out, or his method of using only one ear plug while he sleeps, take the form of extensive footnotes – essays that elevate often overlooked, commonplace objects and events to poetic heights.

Life on Mars Book Club details are being finalized, but we do have the time, dates, and titles set. We’ll meet in the museum exhibition galleries on the following Thursdays, 6:30-7:45 PM. 

We invite you to delve into six fascinating works of fiction that tackle the humor, the peril, and the irony of being human.

June 12            Nicholson Baker: The Mezzanine
July 10             Haruki Murakami: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Aug. 14            Daniel Quinn: Ishmael
Sept. 11           Antoine de Saint Exupéry: The Little Prince
Oct. 9               Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
Nov. 13            Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot



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