Page Two of CultureWatch, August 2010
Daisy Hay has provided a fascinating glimpse into the members of Hunt’s salon, but even more, she has given life to a group of friends, in all its joy and sorrow and just plain messiness. She has produced an elegant work, and we can look forward to whatever comes next.
Much has been made about Hay’s discovery of a journal written by Claire Clairmont in her old age, in which Clairmont vents some spleen (largely over Lord Byron) and makes accusations. While such a discovery is noteworthy, we should remember that hindsight is often unkind and self-serving, especially as offered up in old age. In Hay’s clever hands, however, this matter is the very small postscript it deserves to be.
1 It is worth noting that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, known as the founding mother of feminism and author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” I recommend Lyndall Gordon ’s fine book about her, if you want further information on Mary Shelley’s upbringing, because although her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth, Mary was brought up by her father, the radical philosopher William Godwin, an equally remarkable parent. He made sure that his daughter was educated and reared by Mary Wollstonecraft’s principles, so that even though young Mary never knew her, her mother’s influence on her life was considerable.
by Nicholson Baker
Published by Simon and Shuster; ©2009; hardcover, 243 pp
The cover blurb and subtitle of this book claim it is a novel. Maybe it could be so defined, but many readers may argue the point. There is a rather bittersweet, slightly thin plot, but it includes more criticism, philosophy, and satire than what most people think of as ordinary fiction.
Baker is a writer with an enviable ability to change his colors like the proverbial chameleon. He makes no attempt to hide his ironic world view. There are echoes of the narrator of Vox, but Paul Chowder (the central figure in this story) seems cut from different cloth. He is almost pathetic in his frustrations, infuriating in his helpless self-absorption, intellectually snobbish, and yet somehow the reader is sympathetic. There is no problem understanding why his live-in girlfriend departed, and yet you keep hoping she might come back. To create such an anti-hero who doesn’t become completely irritating is a feat.
The real burden of the tale seems to be a scholarly, exhaustive discourse on Poetry — Poetry with a capital P. If some reader thinks at the outset that the subject is one she had left behind (for good) in school, or that no one has a right to declaim to such an extent on a matter of such variety and so many vagaries, she will almost certainly experience a change of mind. Did you ever think of the role verse plays in how we learn? How many arguments have you heard comparing the virtues of rhymed vs. “free” verse? Baker makes it all exciting and reminds you of conventions and poets you either have long forgotten or never knew, and you think, “I must look that up.”
The skeleton of the story is that Paul has a contract to produce an introduction to an anthology of poetry. He appears to be suffering from classic “writer’s block.” Time and procrastination get the better of him until he is virtually paralyzed. His thoughts and angst take him over. Roz his lover and supporter goes away, and Paul is left to his own devices.
Not only can he find no way to say what he wants to say for the intended forty pages of his introduction, he discovers he can’t decide even what poets to include in the project. He spends weeks reviewing everything he knows about the subject, and not just from the point of view of the critic and anthologist, but from his position as a poet. He has had his own poetry published, and he can’t even leave those alone. He deplores the current state of poetry, is encouraged by thinking back on its history and greatest practitioners, despairs of his ability to make choices, and generally goes into a real psychological decline. About the only constant seems to be his insistence on the importance of rhyme and meter, especially rhyme.
In the meantime, he somehow manages to keep his daily life more or less going in a normal fashion. He solidifies a friendly relationship with a neighbor, takes care of his dog, mows his lawn, and earns just enough to keep them in groceries. Baker makes the scene sensually attractive and alive. You know just where you are (not literally geographically, but in a generic way) that indicates appreciation of nature and food and weather, and of the weight of quotidian requirements when what the poor man wants is his lover back and a reprieve from his contractual duty. Baker pulls the reader along for the sounds and tastes and miseries of summer and the satisfaction of hammering a nail exactly right.
Some might find fault with such displays of arcane knowledge as when Paul runs off on some hobby horse about rhythm, or musical notation used here and there (Baker has written songs, and is obviously proud of it), and there may be a good deal more than you ever wanted to know about the techniques and minutiae of prosody, not to mention comparisons of Continental and English verse. The thing is that so much of what is being presented is related with the convincing quirkiness of a character who is probably a good, if unconventional teacher with a real talent for clowning that you don’t lose patience. You actually want to find out where the next flight of tutoring will lead.
The question left behind seems to be whether Baker wants his readers to wake up to the impact of verse through our lives, from infancy. Paul Chowder has come when we meet him to the place where he depends again on rhyme to float him above the morass of popular culture and hopelessness.
Under the humor and occasional burlesque is an unmistakable entreaty for people to look seriously at poets and their place in a hard world. Baker tells us that we are most of the time only half aware of what we are experiencing, let alone understanding. He is convinced without saying it flat out that if we could only learn to appreciate poetry and understand it properly, and if we could be exposed only to the best of it, life would be better.
Paul Chowder is trying to find a way to say this, and to back it up with examples that satisfy his lofty standards. By the end of the book, you want him to succeed too, and what’s more, you may be inclined to try to help. You may even go out and buy a book of poetry and read it. Just remember that it will be important that it rhymes.