Friday, May 14, 2010

Don't Know Much About Poetry

No, I really don't. I didn't major in English, so I never worked my way through Norton's Anthology, and my poetry knowledge is a spindly, gap-filled trail from Chaucer to Ginsberg. So when Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, announces in the first paragraph that he intends to tell the reader “everything I know about poetry”, I decided to go along for the ride.

Paul is a second-rate poet who is struggling to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry called “Only Rhyme”. Things are not going well - he can't seem to get started, his girlfriend has moved out, he begins to doubt his abilities. But as he muddles through the day he chats on about a myriad of subjects - the origins of poetry, the shortcomings of iambic pentameter, the Futurists who led the 20th century movement away from rhymed verse, even the clothespin manufacturing industry of 19th century New England. Not much happens to him, but his descriptions of such mundane tasks as dog-washing and blueberry-picking are humorous and endearing. He drops poets names left and right, and for every Sara Teasdale or Robert Frost that I recognized, there were twice as many – Howard Moss, James Fenton, Coventry Patmore, Vachel Lindsay – that I didn't. But I hope I'm not making this sound pedantic, because it isn't. Paul is funny, a little goofy, and full of enthusiasm for his theories on poetry.

If it did nothing else, this book whetted my interest in poetry, and sent me to the internet to find some of the poems Paul discussed. Here are two of his favorites that I enjoyed: Elizabeth Bishop's “The Fish” and James Fenton's “The Vapour Trail”.


  1. For me the question is very fundamental: what is poetry? If you took the words of "The Fish" and wrote them in paragraph format it would still make sense. Would it still be a poem?

  2. Poetry is about meter(rhythm) as well as rhyme. Baker talks a lot about this. In "The Fish" the lines have 3 stressed syllables (I CAUGHT a treMENdous FISH/and HELD him beSIDE the BOAT). When you read it aloud you can feel it - almost like a song.