Nicholson Baker bursts into our poetry series with a passion for form, a longing for four-beat rhythms a la Kipling and rhymes of the kind that Ira Gershwin and Dr. Seuss learned from Swinburne. For a couple of months now we’ve been puzzling: what’s it like to write serious verse in these times? Who does it, and why? Enter: Nick Baker, the brilliant mischief-making novelist of Vox and Fermata, the compendious historian in Human Smoke of 20th Century weapons of mass destruction, and also the Kindle commentator in The New Yorker. In a day-dreamy fictional monolog titled The Anthologist, Baker’s poetic hero Paul Chowder gives one man’s complete set of answers to questions we’ve asked in “whose words these are.” Poetry is about dense, juicy words that want to be read slowly, he says. Writing it is slow, too. The poetry game is competitive, anxious and downright scary, not because the words are blocked but because the poet is afraid he’s run out of them — or that he’s lost sight of the main goal, to make something memorably beautiful.
In our conversation Nick Baker reveals that he assembled The Anthologist by speaking his own clutter of thoughts (the silly, the sly, the grand) on poetry into a video recorder upstairs and down in his house in Maine — and some others sitting in a plastic chair next to the badminton court. This is a writer who can talk the afternoon away in the quirky, wise, erudite, fluidly funny high style that we know on the page as Nick Bakeresque.
What is a poem? A poem is something that a person somewhere decided to call a poem. That’s the first thing. And what does it ask of us? It asks us to read it slowly. I think that’s the key, is that poetry is a bunch of words that’s just making a polite request to be read slowly. And there are all sorts of other things that it can do – it can rhyme, it can thump along in a kind of wonderful galumphing way, or not – but it mainly is asking us to slow down. And I like that. I think that I’m not a very fast reader but even though I’m not a fast reader, I read too quickly. And I found that the thing that’s most helpful to me as a writer is to slow myself down artificially. And the way I do that is getting a spiral notebook and copying things out, because if you copy something out, you are forced to read at the speed of writing, which is really really slow. So that comma that you’ve come across? You’ve had to make that little comma shape. So you’re slowing yourself down and I’ve found that that’s very helpful. And one of the things I wanted to do in this book was to put my little hard-won hoard of tips and tricks into book form. Although it’s a work of fiction, here are some things that actually helped me learn how to write. And one of them was to read poetry. I as a fiction writer, learned how to write prose by reading poetry, so I have a great debt that I owe to this tradition. I carried around the New Yorker book of poems, and Howard Moss’ poems, and Stanley Kunitz’s poems with me when I was working in New York on Wall Street, read them on my lunch hour. So I have that, but also there are other tips, and one of them is to: something that you really like – slow yourself down, artificially – it may seem artificial – but slow yourself down by copying it out. If you copy it out, you’ll really read it for the first time.
Nicholson Baker with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.