Anthologizing The Anthologist

And for a while I was pleased with the poems that I published. I felt that I understood why people write poetry. I understood the whole communal activity of writing and reviewing and extracting quotes to go on the paperback. “Moss has arrived, with next to no luggage, at mastery.” Being part of the interfaith blurb universe.

And now it’s like I’m on some infinitely tall ladder. You know the way old aluminum ladders have that texture, that kind of not-too-appealing roughness of texture, and that kind of cold gray color? I’m clinging to this telescoping ladder that leads up into the blinding blue. The world is somewhere very far below. I don’t know how I got here. It’s a mystery. When I look up I see people climbing, rung by rung. I see Jorie Graham, I see Billy Collins, I see Ted Kooser. They’re all clinging to the ladder, too. And above them, I see Auden, Kunitz. Whoa, way up there. Samuel Daniel. Sara Teasdale. Herrick. Tiny figures, clambering, clinging. The wind comes over, whsssew, and it’s cold and the ladder vibrates, and I feel very exposed and high up. Off to one side there’s Helen Vendler, in her trusty dirigible, filming our ascent.

— Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, pp. 196-197.

I worried about the obsessiveness that drives Baker’s work: would it make a novel with feeling? (Why did I worry? He’s done it before.) And creating a narrator whose task is to write a handbook on poetry? Didn’t it risk picayune pedantry? Well, as it turned out, Paul Chowder’s own uncertainty, the very doubts he’s working through as he does everything but write the introduction to his anthology, save his dogmatism from becoming dictatorial. (Sorry about the alliteration, folks.) He may think that only rhyming poems (in English, at least) are real; but he writes unrhymed ones himself.

Plus it is super-quotable. I couldn’t resist Helen Vendler in her airship, but how about this, keeping on the subject of the fates of poets (plus the modern art world, New Yorker covers, and a cat):

I know a little about that art world, or thought I did, in an odd way. One summer when I was fourteen I took care of a cat at a house owned by two gay minimalist painters, Jerry and Sandy. All their walls were flat white, and there were dozens of their paintings up, huge paintings, with silver ovals of metallic paint sprayed from a slight angle, dripping a little bit. The lonely cat roamed this white minimalist house, meowing in a whiskey voice. While she purred beside me, I sat on the minimalist black couch and read copies of Artforum and Art News from the neat pile on the coffee table. I was hoping to find paintings of naked women, and there weren’t as many as you would expect in those magazines because abstraction was confoundedly in vogue. There was an article about a man who cut his palms and the bottoms of his feet with a razor and photographed them healing.

Now I associate people like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara with this arty cool minimalist house where I catsat. And I’d never really cottoned to Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the book that won three awards and made him known throughout the free-verse universe. I’d tried to read it a few times and failed. It’s arbitrary. It 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 likeable. And one of his former students once told me that when Ashbery had a few drinks he got quite silly and giggly and sat on the floor. And the new book had a beautiful cover, and the blurbs were spare and piercing, and although the poems themselves weren’t heartbreaking, 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 overflow parking lot of a beach hotel that had once been painted by Gretchen Dow Simpson.

So I bought the Ashbery and the hell with it.

— pp 232-233


One thought on “Anthologizing The Anthologist

  1. Sandy says:

    Okay! You make me want to read the book.

    See you at the Loft Concert.

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