Here is a 21st century masterwork about poetry from a writer who is wonderfully obsessive, compulsive and disorderly. And thereby hangs a journalistic tale.
There is, of course, already a great 20th century American fictional masterpiece about a poet and a splendidly gaudy breakdown in prose. You could even argue that it is America's first bonafide post-modern masterpiece. That novel is Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," a virtuoso astonishment that accelerated faux scholarship into madness and made loony poetry out of fictional obsession.
In its own gloriously radical way, it was just Nabokov's latest tale of obsession with a rictus grin, a clearcut American relative of his much earlier emigre novel of chess madness from Berlin, "The Luzhin Defense" (which was, itself, a cousin of a slightly later tale of chess obsession, Stefan Zweig's novella "The Royal Game"). If Nabokov had not himself been translating and annotating Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," would he have invented a venerable American poet named John Shade and his mad-as-a-hatter annotater Charles Kinbote, the royal fantasist of Zembla?
Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist" turns "Pale Fire" upside down for a new century. Nabokov's masterwork was a fiction about a poet who uses mock scholarship and art to send characters whirling off into a glorious, widening gyre of lunacy.
Baker uses a fiction about breakdown to send us ever deeper into poetry and sanity. Nabokov's "Pale Fire" isn't really about poetry at all, except incidentally. Baker's "Anthologist" is about nothing else, but it is also a novel which, frankly, doesn't give a flying fig that it's not really a novel at all.
That's the post-modern 21st century way. Lydia Davis -- whose collected "stories" are coming out in October -- writes stories that aren't necessarily stories. Eliot Weinberger's essays might be essays, they might be poems in disguise or pensees or God only knows what.
Baker's major work of nonfiction thus far -- "Human Smoke" -- was an intransigent and troublemaking pacifist study of the origins of World War II and, among other things, the grotesque errancy of making a god of Winston Churchill.
Until then, the Rochester-raised prodigy has mostly written essays, memoirs and novels as free-form and extreme as they could be -- "The Mezzanine," "The Fermata," that amazing book "U&I" (in which literary quasi-stalker Baker copped to his obsession with John Updike) and the phone-sex novel that, somewhat incredibly, became a tabloid star, "Vox," which Monica Lewinsky gave to President Clinton before she decided to preserve, in her closet, the dried-up presidential ecstasy on her blue dress.
What we have here is -- obviously -- a novel. It has a poet protagonist, Paul Chowder, who is compiling an anthology of rhymed poetry called "Only Rhyme." When his planned introduction comes to grief and stops him dead in his writerly tracks, his live-in girlfriend Roz can't take it anymore and leaves.
Which doesn't make his writer's block any easier. His own now-quiescent poetry is notably unrhymed, which is why he playfully even refuses to call them poems. He calls them "plums -- that's what I call a poem that doesn't rhyme -- it's a plum. We who write and publish our nonrhyming plums aren't poets, we're plummets. Or plummers."
So he obsesses. He cuts and mangles his fingers a lot in ridiculous household accidents and empties his brain at us of anything he thinks we need to know about poetry and rhyme. (Without a fictional protagonist, Baker did the same thing about the ongoing digital massacre of paper in "Double Fold.")
All of which is quite real -- and about real poets living and dead and real matters of rhyme and prosody. Unless, of course, Baker, at 50, is so disenchanted with actual ideas about art that he crazily prefers they be fictions, too (which, considering the passionate tendentiousness of "Human Smoke" and "Double Fold," is terminally unlikely).
So you wind up merrily reading scholarly exegeses on the myth of iambic pentameter (it's really four beats and a rest, says Baker) and the mysterious human need for rhythm and rhyme. You will find yourself reveling in detailed explications of poetic metrics that once bored the bangles and bloomers off you in school.
You will also be up to your wattles in Baker's ongoing post-Updike catalog of the quotidian, a kind of increasingly nutty narrative of life on the micro level. It's the sort of thing which has given Baker the reputation of being trivial but which his readers have long known definitively delineates the differences between trivia and minutiae. It's also the sort of thing which, in my opinion, makes Baker the great living literary master of our historical moment, but I'll explain that in a minute.
So obsessed is our poet and floundering anthologist that he finds himself having hallucinations of meeting Poe and Theodore Roethke on his daily rounds. So brilliant and playful and wild is he that he's willing, in this tornado of opinion, to throw this out for our edification "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. . . We're living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is possibly much healthier for them and better for their art."
What "serious" writer, you might ask, would even entertain such an idea without the disguise of a fictional character?
Except that Baker's main torrential, glorious polemic for rhyme seems obsession in earnest. If, he says, those who wanted to banish rhyme from English poetry centuries ago when Thomas Campion briefly proposed it, had succeeded "four hundred years of patented Greek and Latin meters is what we would have had, instead of Marvell and Dryden and Cole Porter and Christina Rossetti and Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hart and Wendy Cope and John Lennon and John Hiatt and Irving Berlin and Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and Charles Causley and Keats and Paul Simon and etcetera and so on."
Baker's "fiction" winds up being a hymn of tidal power and craziness to rhyme and poets.
And when it steps away from poetric matters to follow the mouse droppings in the kitchen, you have Baker, master of minutiae, who -- more than any other living writer -- anticipated all the tweets, Twitters and texts in the Age of Overshare in which we live. His work predicted it all.
The difference is that readers of Nicholson Baker swim in tides of quotidian details so well and wittily and wisely preserved that they mesmerize and entertain as do those of no other living writer.
We are not all writers. Some are just tweety birds.
Just as, as Baker, the rhyming polemicist might have it, some poets are just "plummers."
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the News.
By Nicholson Baker
Simon and Schuster
243 pages, $25