October 2010 Selection: The Anthologist

At our October 7 meeting we discussed the following book selected by Ron Powers:

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Ron provides the following information about his selection:

My choice for our book club read is “The Anthologist,” by Nicholson Baker. When it’s my turn for a selection, I prefer a work of fiction to counterpoint the non-fiction works that populate most men’s reading groups.

This novel is many things at once: compelling, humorous, informative, provocative, nostalgic, witty, and–its most obvious strength–a work which requires the reader to think more about deeply about poetry.

The book’s conversational narrative style also helps make it a delightful summer read. What starts out like cotton candy ends up being a sumptuous, memorable meal.

I like my critics close to home, so I provide here a link to a recent book review of “The Anthologist” from the “Seattle Times” to further support my choice.

Here are some Internet Sites that might be of interest regarding this selection:

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/9168

Informative interview with Nicholson Baker from 2008, before he had published “The Anthologist,” but worth seeing so that you can get a sense of what Baker is like in person rather than just through a book.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/bookclub/2009/10/the-shudder-the-shiver.html

Wonderful interview with Alice Quinn about her reaction to “The Anthologist” and being referenced there, as well as her comments about the battle between rhyming poets and free verse poets.

 

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/433

Alice Quinn interviewed on “The Charlie Rose Show” about the poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

http://www.llamarock.net/lit/cope.php

A pleasant selection of Wendy Cope poems, including “The Aerial.”

Here are some Comments on Life Taken from the Book:

My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure.

I’ve read too many difficult poems. I’ve postponed comprehension too many times.

It’s hard to hold it all in your head. All the different possible ways that you can enjoy life.

Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an e-mail asking me to do something.

A nice family unit, a healed wound.

You have to suffer in order to be a human being who can help people understand suffering.

At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize 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.

One thing I really like about books of poems is that you can open them anywhere and you’re at a beginning…Many many beginnings. That feeling of setting forth.

So many poets are disappointments when you hear them talk on the radio.

You can’t force it. If it isn’t there you can’t force it. Then I thought: You can force it. My whole life I’ve been forcing it…You can force it, and you should force it. All the time. Force it open. Push. Pull. When you think you can’t, think again. On the other hand, sometimes the wood of the door is a little rotten around the handle and you tear out the screws. My father was right. Sometimes the door is really just stuck.

Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race.

I have no health insurance. Death is my health insurance.

“Carpe diem” means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be “cape diem”…Very different piece of advice…pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.

Thursday is the day of fear.

Here’s what a poem is. See this glass of water? The glass of water is an essay. Perfectly fine thing for it to be. A literary essay—a piece of “creative nonfiction.” But dip a spoon in that glass of water and scoop some of it out and hold it over a hot fry pan so that a few drops fall and sizzle and quickly disappear. That’s a poem.

Sometimes I think knowing the names of everything is overrated. It takes away the sense that each thing is itself and not part of some clique.

You can start anywhere [when writing a poem]. That’s the thing about starting. If you start, you’re in motion. If you don’t start, you’re nowhere. If you stop, you’re nowhere.

How long, in fact, will the English language last? Not that long maybe. Another three hundred years?..One day the English language is going to perish.

…the sitcom is the great American art form.

“How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?”…”Well, I’ll tell you how, I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?”

Amy Lowell said…”Poetry is a young man’s job.

 

 

Here are some Comments on Poetry Taken from the Book:

What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion. Now, that isn’t true of rhymed poems…Rhymed poems are different. But the kind of free-verse poems that most poets write now—the kind that I write—is slow-motion prose.

When I come across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it.

…my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz.

Pentameter…is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto.

…four beats. “Through caverns measureless to man”—four beats…it’s the basis of song lyrics, too, because lyric poetry is song lyrics, that’s why it’s called lyric poetry.

I’ve read too many difficult poems. I’ve postponed comprehension too many times.

Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority.

Another tip is: If you have something to say, say it.

The four beat line is the soul of English poetry.

Milne was a metrical genius. And Dr. Seuss, of course….

…that pattern, the four lines together, four beats for each line…that pattern makes up what’s called the common stanza or the ballad stanza, which is really the basis of English poetry.

Did you do that thing I mentioned where you write down every real story somebody tells you or that you overhear in a twenty-four hour period?

Free verse really got rolling about a hundred years ago.

I read what I’d written aloud to myself. Which is what you always do. But this time I used a foreign accent.

Never recite!

What I’m doing when I’m writing poetry is I’m trying to make a little side salad.

…I don’t count those long poems because I think most of them have very little that’s good in them.

…Ezra Pound, the source of all evil.

There’s no either-or division with poems. What’s made up and what’s not made up? What’s the varnished truth, what’s the unvarnished truth? We don’t care.

True poet’s depression is a rigor mortis of agony…That’s what it [crying] does for all these really good poets. The crying and the singing are connected.

Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.

The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication…Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next.

They [poets] don’t want to face the world’s grief head-on.

Poets are our designated grievers.

Auden was an interesting case. He believed that you could write drunk and revise sober.

English is a stressed language, and you want to boom it out sometimes. Then sometimes you want to whisper it…Poetry is written sometimes, I think, in a whisper.

“Poetry seems to be, for some strange reason, a young man’s job.” Amy Lowell

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

…translations are never good.

It’s a plum, not a poem. That’s what I call a poem that doesn’t rhyme—it’s a plum.

…you’ll find that most of the poetry in them [periodicals] is just there as decoration. It’s a form of ornament, like a printer’s dingbat.

One thing I really like about books of poems is that you can open them anywhere and you’re at a beginning…Many many beginnings. That feeling of setting forth.

Samuel Daniel…published a book of poems with a lovely, modest title. I think it’s my favorite title of a book of poetry ever…Certaine Small Poems Lately Printed.

People have been struggling over this idea that rhyme is artificial and unnatural for hundreds and hundreds of years…Why do we need things to rhyme so much?

Mary Oliver is my favorite poet at the moment, and she almost never rhymes. W. S. Merwin’s The Vixen is one of my favorite books of poems, and it doesn’t rhyme.

W. S. Merwin said his mother read poetry to him. Well, mine did, too.

What is enjambment? Enjambment is the key to the whole construc-tion…you’re “jammed” into the next line….There are two kinds of enjambment. There’s regular enjambment…and then there’s what’s known as ultra-extreme enjambment.

W. S. Merwin…wanted to be a poet, and he thought that Ezra Pound was the modernist man, the founder of it all…So…Merwin went and visited Ezra Pound in the insane asylum…Pound…was…a blustering bigot—a humanless jokester—a talentless pasticheur—a confidence man…supported by the American state…Pound became the cracker-barrel philosopher of free verse.

Pound’s advice to Bill Merwin was: You’ve got to do some translations. Sharpen your mind with translations. So Merwin did a lot of translations.

So many poets are disappointments when you hear them talk on the radio.

Everything enjambs visually until you read it aloud to yourself and hear where the breaks should come.

What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poem. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means…Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops.

Hip hop is our light verse.

The tongue is a rhyming fool.

Poems match sounds up the way you matched them up when you were a tiny kid….

Rhyme taught us to talk.

So it’s the nineteenth century we’re talking about today…one hundred years of pure poetry…after that time…events became quite confused and nobody knew what they were doing. Rhyme went to hell, and everything became a jumble.

And that’s why we like to talk about the nineteenth century, because it’s more fun, and everybody knows names like Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge—and Swinburne. And Tennyson. And Mr. Brownng. And Mrs. Browning. And Arnold. And Emily Dickinson, or course. And Longfellow. And a bunch of other poets. The names just go on and on because the nineteenth century was the century of English poetry.

The worst possible person [for poetry], unfortunately. His name was Marinetti. The leader of the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Futurism led directly to Mussolini and Hitler. It also led to modern poetry.

Edna St. Vincent Millay died, falling down the stairs alone…Vachel Lindsay died on the stairs, too, more of less…Sara Teasdale was heartsick, and she drugged herself one night in the bathtub.

There are too many poems about death…we need poems to declare love, too.

“Carpe diem” means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be “cape diem”…Very different piece of advice…pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.

The death of rhyme is really all about translation…Mallarme in his wisdom translated Poe into exquisitely rhymeless French prose…

What does “poet laureate” mean? Nothing. It means a person with laurel branches twisted around his head.

…most good poets can’t write good prose. The better prose they write, the worse the poetry. The better the poetry, the worse the prose. Except for letters. Poets are good letter writers….

Here’s what a poem is. See this glass of water? The glass of water is an essay. Perfectly fine thing for it to be. A literary essay—a piece of “creative nonfiction.” But dip a spoon in that glass of water and scoop some of it out and hold it over a hot fry pan so that a few drops fall and sizzle and quickly disappear. That’s a poem.

And this is what everyone who teaches poetry discovers. If you ask grade-school kids to rhyme, it may sound jingly, but it’s an appealing artless jingle. If you ask college kids to rhyme, however, they’re going to sound awful. Because the percentage of genuine rhymers is tiny.

You know what “The Fish” [by Elizabeth Bishop] is? “The Fish” is sort of like a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker if the Talk of the Town had died and gone to heaven.

The fish doesn’t want to be described. That’s what gives the poem its pull…and the fish is gasping and—ploosh—‘I let the fish go.’ Because that’s what you have to do. You take the moment, you do your best to describe it, it fascinates you, and then when you’ve done your best to give it to people on some printed page, then you have to let it go.

What is the real rhythm of poetry? And Ginsberg [Allen] replied that the rhythm of poetry was the rhythm of the body. He said that it was, quote, “jacking off under bridges.”

The real rhythm of poetry is a strolling rhythm. Or a dancing rhythm. A gavotte, a minuet, a waltz.

People I’m jealous of: James Fenton, Sinead O’Connor, Lorenz Hart, Jon Stewart, Billy Collins.

Swinburne was remarkably prolific. In fact, he glutted the world with verse. He died in 1909, which is really the crucial year in the war between rhyme and unrhyme…Swinburne was the greatest rhymer who ever lived….[his] big problem was that he wrote way, way, way too much…Poetry is still recovering from Swinburne.

Staying Alive may be the best poetry anthology ever.

…most people who read poetry are reading it because they want to write it.

You know what? I could write forever. This is me. This is me you’re getting. Nobody else but me.

How long, in fact, will the English language last? Not that long maybe. Another three hundred years?…One day the English language is going to perish.

…in the end love poems are the best kind of poems.

I’ve lived through the thirty-year ascendancy of chaos and tunelessness, and things are moving back now. It was a mistake to suppress rhyme so completely, a mistake to forget about the necessary tapping of the toe, but it was a useful mistake, a beautiful mistake, because it taught us new things. It loosened people up and made other discoveries possible.

[John] Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”…reads as if it’s written by a cleverly programmed random-phrase generator. It doesn’t sing. But Ashbery is old now and therefore more likable…the book made me think of the sound of someone closing the door of a well-cared for pale blue Infiniti on a late-summer evening in the gravel overflowing parking lot of a beach hotel that had once been painted by Gretchen Dow Simpson.

Roethke said that a country can really sustain only fifteen poets at a time, which is about right.

“How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?”…”Well, I’ll tell you how, I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?”

Amy Lowell said…”Poetry is a young man’s job.”

 

Here are some Comments on Poets Taken from the Book:

Alice Quinn. The magnificent Alice.

Wendy Cope—“The Aerial”

…master your little heap of names—Andrew Marvell, Muriel Rukeyser, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Auden, Bishop, Marvin Bell, Ted Hughes, John Hollander, Nicholas Christopher, Deborah Garrison, whoever, James Wright, Selima Hill, Troy Jollismore.

“The New Yorker Book of Poems”—Snodgrass, Kunitz, Nemerov and Moss…I would read those guys. Mainly Moss.

[Christopher] Isherwood was the wax on Auden’s wings.

Louise Bogan said that Theodore Roethke [rhymes with set key] made her “bloom like a Persian rosebush” during their long happy sex weekend together.

Mary Oliver is saving my life

Samuel Daniel…published a book of poems with a lovely, modest title. I think it’s my favorite title of a book of poetry ever…Certaine Small Poems Lately Printed.

W. S. Merwin said his mother read poetry to him. Well, mine did too.

W. S. Merwin…wanted to be a poet, and he thought that Ezra Pound was the modernist man, the founder of it all…So…Merwin went and visited Ezra Pound in the insane asylum…Pound…was..a blustering bigot—a humanless jokester—a talentless pasticheur—a confidence man…supported by the American state…Pound became the cracker-barrel philosopher of free verse.

Pound’s advice to Bill Merwin was: You’ve got to do some translations. Sharpen your mind with translations. So Merwin did a lot of translations.

[Merwin] wrote a beautiful book of poems late in life called The Vixen. And another beautiful book called Present Company.

So many poets are disappointments when you hear them talk on the radio.

Ed Ochester. Good poet. And then I thought of another good poet, Mary Kinzie. And then I thought of another one, Matthew Rohrer. And another, Stanley Plumly.

What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poem. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means…Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops.

So it’s the nineteenth century we’re talking about today…one hundred years of pure poetry…after that time…events became quite confused and nobody knew what they were doing. Rhyme went to hell, and everything became a jumble.

And that’s why we like to talk about the nineteenth century, because it’s more fun, and everybody knows names like Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge—and Swinburne. And Tennyson. And Mr. Brownng. And Mrs. Browning. And Arnold. And Emily Dickinson, or course. And Longfellow. And a bunch of other poets. The names just go on and on because the nineteenth century was the century of English poetry.

The worst possible person [for poetry], unfortunately. His name was Marinetti. The leader of the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Futurism led directly to Mussolini and Hitler. It also led to modern poetry.

Mina Loy…that brilliant strange juxtaposer.

Edna St. Vincent Millay died, falling down the stairs alone…Vachel Lindsay died on the stairs, too, more of less…Sara Teasdale was heartsick, and she drugged herself one night in the bathtub.

Karl Shapiro’s poems were included in a very important anthology, The Oxford Book of American Verse, edited by F. O. Matthiessen…[who] jumped out a hotel room window in Boston…So Oxford waited politely for some years, and then they hired a different anthologist, a man named Richard Ellman…Ellman hated Shapiro..so he…dropped Shapiro’s poems from the anthology…. [Shapiro] really never recovered…The new version is edited by David Lehman, a poet—and guess what? Karl Shapiro is back in. So it call comes around.

There used to be a position at the Library of Congress called “poetry consultant”…Joseph Auslander…Archie MacLeish…Louise Bogan…Elizabeth Bishop…Leonie Adams….

You know what “The Fish” [by Elizabeth Bishop] is? “The Fish” is sort of like a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker if the Talk of the Town had died and gone to heaven.

The fish doesn’t want to be described. That’s what gives the poem its pull…and the fish is gasping and—ploosh—‘I let the fish go.’ Because that’s what you have to do. You take the moment, you do your best to describe it, it fascinates you, and then when you’ve done your best to give it to people on some printed page, then you have to let it go.

James Fenton—who is the best living love poet…

What is the real rhythm of poetry? And Ginsberg [Allen] replied that the rhythm of poetry was the rhythm of the body. He said that it was, quote, “jacking off under bridges.”

The real rhythm of poetry is a strolling rhythm. Or a dancing rhythm. A gavotte, a minuet, a waltz.

Poe’s “Raven,”…probably the best quadruplet rhythm ever written….

[John Greenleaf] Whittier was a nineteenth-century poet who wrote a once-famous four-beater about a blizzard, called “Snowbound”…Most of Whittier’s poetry wasn’t good….Whittier versus Longfellow…Longfellow was the greater poet, of course.

One poem I liked recently was James Fenton’s ‘The Vapor Trail.’

Swinburne was remarkably prolific. In fact, he glutted the world with verse. He died in 1909, which is really the crucial year in the war between rhyme and unrhyme…Swinburne was the greatest rhymer who ever lived…. [his] big problem was that he wrote way, way, way too much…Poetry is still recovering from Swinburne.

Staying Alive may be the best poetry anthology ever.

Merwin’s late poetry gives me hope.

None of the great poets believed in teaching.

… [Philip] Larkin’s poems are so killingly down-bringing. I can’t bear Larkin, not because he isn’t a very good poet—he is a very good poet—but because anytime I get anywhere near him it’s poison, I don’t want to go on living. His acid is just too corrosive.

Iambic pentameter is an import that Geoffrey Chaucer brought in from French verse, and it was unstable from the very beginning because French is a different stress universe than Middle English and it naturally falls into triplets and doublets.

“Iambic” is a Greek word that in English just means an upbeat.

…Theodore Roethke’s prose collection, On the Poet and His Craft.

…in the end love poems are the best kinds of poems.

I’ve lived through the thirty-year ascendancy of chaos and tunelessness, and things are moving back now. It was a mistake to suppress rhyme so com-pletely, a mistake to forget about the necessary tapping of the toe, but it was a useful mistake, a beautiful mistake, because it taught us new things. It loosened people up and made other discoveries possible.

[John] Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”…reads as if it’s written by a cleverly programmed random-phrase generator. It doesn’t sing. But Ashbery is old now and therefore more likable…the book made me think of the sound of someone closing the door of a well-cared for pale blue Infiniti on a late-summer evening in the gravel overflowing parking lot of a beach hotel that had once been painted by Gretchen Dow Simpson.

Roethke said that a country can really sustain only fifteen poets at a time, which is about right.

Paul Muldoon [current poetry editor of the New Yorker]

“How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?”…”Well, I’ll tell you how, I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?”

Amy Lowell said…”Poetry is a young man’s job.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2010 Selections, The Anthologist. Bookmark the permalink.

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