Vol. 33, 2011
Every so often, a subculture, especially an insecure one, likes a reflective surface held up to its mug, if only to confirm that it does in fact exist. Surely many readers of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995)—specifically, those who fancied themselves connoisseurs of popular music—enjoyed seeing their record-store world represented in print as much as they enjoyed the novel itself. At the very least, High Fidelity had therapeutic benefits. It allowed a notoriously difficult type—the usually young, usually white, and invariably male record collector—an insight into certain of his own tendencies: the obsession with obscure vinyl, the making of the mixtape for purposes of mating, the compilation of the top-five list in the event of exile to some desert island. By identifying his tendencies, the novel was also gently satirizing them, but no matter; High Fidelity was still a pleasure, if only because it enabled that most satisfying kind of voyeurism: the prolonged peek at oneself.
A good deal of the excitement that greeted Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist issued from the poetry world, which recognized in the novel something like its own High Fidelity. The Anthologist concerns a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder, one of a few fictional characters in an otherwise real world—our world, the one in which a man named Paul Muldoon serves as Poetry Editor for The New Yorker and a Ted Kooser has “sticky-outy ears.” Chowder, we’re to understand, is a bit of a has-been; it’s been years since he got his Guggenheim (the “Old Gugg,” as he puts it), and the appearances of his poetry in The New Yorker have tapered off (not that there were many to begin with). He ought to be applying the finishing touches to an anthology, Only Rhyme, that he’s been editing, but he can’t quite bring himself to write the introduction. Instead, he has holed up in his barn and taken to kibitzing with the reader; in fact, for long stretches the novel assumes the form of an improvised primer on poetry. (When Chowder says, “Woops—dropped my Sharpie,” ten pages in, we realize he’s been diagramming.) It’s as if he’s running an MFA workshop in an empty room. He’s not wrestling schizophrenia or anything; he’s merely rehearsing his ideas to the drywall, as lonely poets are apt to do. “What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class,” Chowder explains. (He no longer can bear to teach the real kind of class, with live students.) He’s also weathering a break-up, although the romantic subplot, as in High Fidelity, seems a little incidental. But then so does the main plot, such as it is. Poet pines, poet procrastinates, poet serves on panel at conference: That’s about all we get.
Much of the novel’s pleasure derives from Chowder’s musings on poetry and anecdotes about the subculture. And yet the many names of living, breathing poets dropped by Chowder are mostly ends unto themselves. If you’re hoping for a showdown between, say, Franz Wright and William Logan, for some fisticuffs between aggrieved poet and ruthless reviewer, your bloodlust won’t be sated. If you’re agreeably scandalized when Chowder calls Billy Collins a “[c]harming chirping crack whore,” you’re let down a sentence later when Chowder withdraws the cheap shot. (“I know nothing about him,” he says, like a good adult. “I know only my own jealousy.”) Robert Pinsky, another big name, strikes Chowder as “a pretty smooth dude. He used to be the poetry editor of The New Republic. Rejected some things of mine and more power to him.” And yet it’s unclear what Chowder means by “smooth”—an artist’s sprezzatura, a careerist’s crassness, a Don Juan’s slickness? For a thwarted poet addressing an empty room, he can be remarkably ambiguous, if not cautiously diplomatic, about his contemporaries; he names names, but to no great effect. Only Muldoon appears (very briefly) as an actual character with something like narrative business to carry out: By encouraging Chowder to send new work to The New Yorker, he serves as the deus ex machina whose purpose is to provide the novel with a happy ending.
But then it’s no simple feat to set a living, breathing poet down in a novel and concoct words for him to say or business for him to carry out; after all, he might not appreciate the words, the business. The poets who grace novels as characters tend to be selected from the ranks of the long-dead. Some recent examples include Hopkins (in Ron Hansen’s Exiles), Dickinson (in Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson), and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (in Anne Plantagenet’s The Last Rendezvous). Novelists especially like to exhume Byron. Perhaps the long-dead, like most inanimate things, are just easier to get a grip on than the far more active and slippery and lawyer-retaining poets who, for good or bad, are still with us (though in truth the unacknowledged legislators of the world don’t retain lawyers—their heirs do).
When writing about the long-dead, the novelist can consult letters, diaries, biographies, bills of sale, marginalia—all manner of scrap. And where these fail, where the papyrus crumbles or gives way to gaps, the novelist’s imagination, far from being hindered, is liberated. The exchanges between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as the two poets revise Owen’s work in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, are so vivid you might think they’re based on transcripts. Barker, to be sure, did her research; some of the fictional Sassoon’s remarks appear to have been inspired by the real Sassoon’s written comments, which survive on a draft of Owen’s poetry. But for the most part Barker must imagine. And what she imagines—the nudging along of the naïve talent (Owen) by the reluctant mentor (Sassoon)—is unsentimental enough to be believable:
Sassoon picked up the next sheet. Craning his
neck, Owen could just see the title of the poem.
“That’s in your style,” he said.
“Starts and ends well. What happened in the middle?”
“That’s quite old, that bit. I wrote that two years
“They do say if you leave something in a drawer long enough it’ll either rot or ripen.” […] Sassoon was shuffling Owen’s papers together. “Look, why don’t you have a go at…” He peered at the title. “‘The Dead Beat’? Work at it till you think you’ve made some progress, then bring it back and we’ll have a go at it together. It’s not too traumatic, is it? That memory.”
“Good heavens, no.”
“How long do you spend on it? Not that one, I mean generally?”
“Fifteen minutes.” He saw Sassoon’s expression change. “That’s every day.”
“Good God, man, that’s no use. You’ve got to sweat your guts out. Look, it’s like a drill. You don’t wait till you feel like doing it.”
“Well, it’s certainly a new approach to the Muse.
‘Number from the left! Form fours! Right turn!’”
It may be that Barker has recovered some sense of the pre-Iowa poetry workshop, when the student (there was but the one) was an imposition, and the teacher (a cranky aesthete) had to be won over, and the workshop doubled as somebody’s living quarters (Sassoon and Owen have been working in Sassoon’s room at Craiglockhart War Hospital). Or it may be that Barker understands a bygone world and its protocols: how a poet once dealt with a protégé through candor (“What happened in the middle?”), indignation (“Good God, man, that’s no use”), and military simile (“Look, it’s like a drill”). Or it may just be that Barker understands poets, in which case what she doesn’t know about the actual Owen and Sassoon doesn’t matter—she knows enough to present, in an accurate way, the putting together of two heads to make a poem better.
Nicholson Baker understands poets, too, and some of his anecdotes, I’m happy to report, are of a slightly scandalous nature. At one point we’re informed that Theodore Roethke and Louise Bogan “really liked each other. So they had their lost weekend together, drinking quarts of liquor and doing every wild fucky thing that you can imagine that two manic depressive poets might do.” Wild fucky bits aside—and there aren’t many of them—The Anthologist gets many other details about the American poetry world just about right. For example, Chowder’s love-hate relationship with The New Yorker—a fine magazine with which many poets still find fault, at least until their poetry appears in it—would be note-perfect if Chowder didn’t appear to have a subscription and, instead, was imagined at a Borders, paging through an unpurchased copy, wondering whether or not he should buy the thing. As it is, Baker has his poet thinking how he’ll
…flip through the newest issue, walking back from my blue mailbox, hunting for the poem [Muldoon] chose over mine, and it’ll be the same thing as always. The prose will have pulled back, and the poem will be there, cavorting, saying, I’m a poem, I’m a poem. No, you’re not! You’re an imposter [sic], you’re a toy train of pretend stanzas of chopped garbage. Just like my poem was.
Elsewhere, the questions of Chowder’s well-meaning neighbor—“So why did poems stop rhyming? Were all the rhymes just used up?”—register the layperson’s ignorance of, and mild curiosity about, an alien and seemingly anachronistic art form. (In a novel about opera, the neighbor would be heard to wonder why those Viking-helmeted singers have to sing so darn loud all the time.) The noisy cash register that disrupts Chowder’s poetry reading at a bookstore is another perceptive detail, as is the poet’s optimistic bit of accounting, which considers the dozen or so attendees—including “several bookstore employees”—a “good crowd.” (Had the reading been set in a bar, the noise would have come from a bartender clinking glasses or customers racking up a pool table.)
More generally, Baker allows Chowder the sort of observations that a poet may feel are true but is probably better off not committing to print. This, for instance:
…[T]ranslations are never good. Well, wait—that’s not fair. That’s ridiculously unfair. I’ve read some wonderful translations. Translations of Tranströmer, for instance. But my heart does droop when I see that it’s a translation.
And we all love the busy ferment, and we all know it’s nonsense. Getting together for conferences of international poetry. Hah! A joke. Reading our poems. Our little moment. Physical presence. In the same room with. A community. Forget it. It’s a joke.
For these passages alone (and there are others like them), The Anthologist, which is as much a study in honesty as poetry, should be handed out to aspiring poets as they enter the workshop. And yet, as some critics have pointed out, something is slightly off in The Anthologist—its universe resembles a kind of Twilight Zone that falls just short of approximating reality. In The New York Times, David Orr expressed bafflement at Chowder’s scant references to literary magazines that aren’t The New Yorker. David Kirby, in The Washington Post, raised an eyebrow at the $7,000 that Chowder will be paid on delivery of his anthology. One wonders if $7,000 is a successful novelist’s idea of the kind of capital that changes hands in the poetry world. One also wonders about the business acumen of bookstores in Baker’s Twilight Zone. Do they typically invite poets who, like Chowder, have no new book to promote to give readings? Poets, like touring bands, tend to do live gigs in support of recent product. Perhaps Baker simply wanted his poet to give a reading. Perhaps a novel about a poet is supposed to feature a set piece with a reading.
More problematic is Chowder’s taste in poetry. His hobby horse is something he calls four-beat poetry, stray lines of which he’s apt to plump for: Raleigh’s “Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,” for instance. But Chowder’s hand-picked lines don’t always convince. (Is the excellence of Roethke’s “Ye littles, lie more close” so self-evident it need merely be quoted? Is it really good enough to be anthologized on its own, as Chowder suggests, in some hypothetical book devoted to great lines?) Worse, Chowder has a weakness for the shopworn. He subjects us to a four-page exegesis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” a chestnut that even Bishop herself grew tired of seeing chewed over; and he refers us to “The Raven,” “Ozymandias,” “Kubla Khan,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It’s not that these aren’t classics worth rereading; it’s that they’re staples of survey courses. (Perhaps a novel about a poet is supposed to make multiple references to “Ozymandias” and “The Raven”?) I’m put in mind of Michael Hofmann’s recent comments on the difference in taste between Bishop and Robert Lowell, as revealed in their correspondence:
[H]e comes to her, at various times, with Faulkner, Pope, Middlemarch, Chaucer, Dryden, Tasso, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Macaulay, Dr. Zhivago, “all of Thucydides. Isn’t Molière swell!”; she counters with such things as Marius the Epicurean, Frank O’Hara, Captain Slocum, Mme de Sévigné…Sergey Aksakov. It’s not that her writers are impressively obscure or recherché— though they are that, too!—they bespeak a taste as his, frankly, don’t. They are the product of longer and more grown-up searching.
When it comes to contemporary poetry, Chowder’s “favorite poet at the moment” is Mary Oliver, whose poems, he reflects, are “very simple. And yet each has something.” He also thinks highly of W. S. Merwin, who, like Oliver (not to mention Bukowski, Angelou, Neruda, and Rumi), takes up far too much of the space the typical bookstore will cede to poetry. They’re the overstocked poets that an amateur—Chowder’s neighbor, for instance—will encounter first. Such bland, predictable taste, from a supposed insider, suggests that the insider hasn’t done enough “grown-up searching.” We’re not surprised when he implies that it’s de rigueur to “crack open next year’s Best American Poetry” or when he orders The New Faber Book of Love Poems from Amazon.
Chowder, for all his love of four-beat poetry, has little sense of contemporary poets who work in, as gets said, traditional forms. Baker goes to the trouble of inventing a “Renee Parker Task, who’s a hotshot among young formalists,” but why invent a hotshot when you can simply refer to a real one like A. E. Stallings or David Yezzi (or an established formalist like Marilyn Hacker or Annie Finch), especially when the novelty of your novel is, partly, its name-dropping? A jab or two is thrown at the likes of Charles Olson, John Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg, but Chowder’s cudgelling of longdead avant-gardists, such as the “young bully” Ezra Pound, borders on the flogging of dead horses, especially in these target-rich times. (Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Anne Carson are alive and well and ready to be reviled by a sensibility like Chowder’s.) His sense of active critics and reviewers doesn’t extend much beyond Helen Vendler and Charles Simic. Where’s the musing on Adam Kirsch or Dan Chiasson, both of whom review poetry for The New Yorker? Or Marjorie Perloff? Clive James? Dana Gioia? Michael Hofmann? If we’re to have a novel about a failed poet—Chowder once enjoyed a “reputation as a bad-boy formalist” but can no longer rig up a decent rhyme scheme—he surely should have suffered a withering notice from William Logan in The New Criterion.
Unlike those of the record store clerks in High Fidelity—whom you can trust to recommend an album you’ve never heard of— Chowder’s range of reference is suspiciously narrow. He’s rather like the hapless customer who, inquiring after some mid-period and middle-of-the-road Stevie Wonder, gets pilloried for it by a clerk. Chowder may well be intended as a parody of the middle-aged curmudgeon, out of touch with recent doings. But are most readers—the ones who know little about poetry and just want to read the new Nicholson Baker novel—going to get the parody? These readers, even if they recognize Chowder’s curmudgeonliness, are apt to take him for knowledgeable, a sound guide to the American poetry world. They might even buy his conspiracy theories about iambic pentameter. (Chowder insists that what gets labeled iambic pentameter is really just a three-beat line in disguise.) They might even buy a book by Mary Oliver.
It’s possible that this Paul Chowder character is little more than a special effect, the life-like representative of an amateur enthusiast named Nicholson Baker, who writes a stylish novel but hasn’t much of a clue about poems. One can only imagine the novel the late Tom Disch, presented with the same material, would have come up with. Disch’s Muldoon, I like to think, wouldn’t have invited a middling mid-careerist to enlarge the slush pile of The New Yorker; he would have been, instead of a mere cameo figure, a fully realized, high-wattage superstar who knows enough to be wary of the moths he draws at public events. (The poetry editor of a major East Coast magazine is a god in a machine precisely to the extent that he bats away those pesky bugs that gum up the works.) And Chowder, in Disch’s hands, might have been less soupy than his Pynchonesque surname leads us to believe. He might have worked the poetry editor a bit, cornered him at a party, slipped a manuscript under a bathroom stall. Or else he might have snubbed the superstar altogether, preferring his own darkness to the dizzying light. A brave novelist, I like to think, would have risked some speculation, and even a lawsuit or two. He would have arranged a duel between a Wright and a Logan. He would have told us what he really thinks about this or that big name. He would have named names, all right, in the manner of a Congressional witness who leans toward the microphone and does in careers.
If Chowder, a bit of a dummy, gives voice to one great, troubling truth, it’s the truth of another—a ventriloquist named Amy Lowell. Chowder is struck by Lowell’s observation that “Poetry seems to be, for some strange reason, a young man’s job”; the apothegm, he tells us, “slapped me in the head like a big heavy cold dogfish. Poetry is a young man’s job. What a frighteningly true thought.” Chowder is a good study in middle-aged competence; he’s old enough to know that although he’ll never write a great poem, he still might manage a good one. He’s feeling his age. And daydreaming, too. “The wind comes over, whssssew,” he says,
…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. And I look down, and there are many people behind me. They’re hurrying up to where I am. They’re twenty-three-year-old energetic climbing creatures in their anoraks and goggles, and I’m trying to keep climbing. But my hands are cold and going numb. My arms are tired to tremblement [sic].
An improbable energy—cold fusion that’s better left unquestioned—often powers the young poet: a yet-to-be-justified belief in the value of her own work. Kay Ryan hypothesizes that “[t]he most important thing a beginning writer may have going for her is her bone-deep impulse to defend a self that at the time might not look all that worth getting worked up about.” But it can be hard to sustain this “bone-deep impulse” as a poet ages, and as “energetic climbing creatures,” with impulses of their own, begin to accumulate behind.
If Chowder has lost his impulse, the young poets in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (published in Spanish in 1998, in English nine years later) are intensely animated by theirs. Bolaño’s poets, who make up an avant-garde in Mexico City, would seem to be the sort of young men who, according to Amy Lowell, are up to the job. How they love poetry, these energetic climbing creatures. How much energy they have for the loving of poetry, for the churning out of “two-handed writing, three-handed writing, masturbatory writing (we wrote with the right hand and masturbated with the left, or vice versa if we were left-handed), madrigals, poem-novels, sonnets always ending with the same word”—the litany runs on. Because self-respecting avant-gardists need a brand identity all their own, Bolaño’s poets call themselves “visceral realists” (a name that recalls the real-world Infrarealists, of which Bolaño was a cofounder). The visceral realists abhor canonical Octavio Paz and revere obscure Césarea Tinajero, the mythic fount of visceral realism. They have but one of Tinajero’s poems to go on, from the only surviving issue of a defunct little magazine, Caborca. Nevertheless, they strike out in search of her. These aren’t the most avant of gardists; they’re oriented less toward a future destination and more toward headwaters, some source that might explain their present foaming.
And foam they do: Early in the novel, with the zeal of revolutionaries, they storm a poetry workshop and denounce the instructor’s “critical system”; later, a lone visceral realist challenges a critic to a duel with swords. (We finally get that match-up between a Wright and his Logan.) And yet the visceral realists can’t always articulate a clear rationale for their aversions. Challenged by an editor to write a review of Paz, they accept but don’t follow through. In time, their “childishly stubborn” refutation of poets like Paz seems to lose resolve. Late in the novel, one of their leaders, Ulises Lima, who seems to have once flirted with the notion of kidnapping Paz, stumbles on the great poet in a seedy park—or rather, Paz stumbles on Lima, who has taken to mucking about in seedy parks. The meeting is amiable, anticlimactic, but then the revolutionary energy of the visceral realists has long since dissipated, been let out by ellipses. “We kept moving…” sighs one member. “We kept moving…We did what we could…But nothing turned out right.”
The quest for Tinajero takes place in 1976 and is narrated by Juan García Madero, the youngest of the visceral realists and a late addition to their ranks. Madero’s account of the quest frames a long series of eyewitness accounts—the bulky middle of the book—in which different narrators, in the years following 1976, recall the visceral realists and, in particular, their leaders, the aforementioned Lima and his friend Arturo Belano. Because they mostly live in the minds of others, Lima and Belano can start to seem like the stuff of legend. These minds (which belong to supporters, but also editors, ex-lovers, and other professional detractors) try out all sorts of opinions about the visceral realists, and the reader is free to take sides. Bolaño’s prose, as translated by Natasha Wimmer, is pleasingly functional where it could have been disastrously purple: It mostly aims to get down the voices of the narrators and then get out of their way. For a novel about poets, The Savage Detectives, like The Anthologist, gives the impression of putting a lot of stock in the power of the good old human voice at its least rehearsed and most conversational. (One can only imagine the lyrical prose that a Michael Ondaatje or an Anne Michaels, presented with the same material, would have come up with.)
In general, the many narrators of The Savage Detectives don’t have good news to report. In the 1980s and 90s, Lima and Belano, who often appear bedraggled, cast about the globe, passing in and out of other, more settled lives, leaving their impressions. There’s a vague sense that they’ve gotten some stuff published, made some inroads. But the effect of the book’s calculated bulk on its reader is akin to that of Major League Baseball’s grueling 162-game season: Over time, as minor gains are erased by accumulating losses, the reader starts to experience the baseball fan’s creeping sense of doom as sheer mathematics take over and a beloved team is squeezed out of contention. Eventually, Lima and Belano part ways, fade away. Our final glimpse of Lima is in Mexico City; Belano, a makeshift journalist in war-torn Liberia, is last seen on the eve of some battle in which he’s gotten himself mixed up.
As for Madero, toward the end of the novel we’re encouraged to believe he never existed by the “only expert on the visceral realists,” some scholar with a “little book” on the movement. By the time Madero’s narration resumes and the quest of 1976 reboots, we know that we can’t quite believe in him, and that nothing much could have come of the quest; we have already heard tell of Bolaño’s poets in their later years, losing steam like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, and David Foster Wallace’s Hal Incandenza, the great protagonists of our great novels of entropy. Indeed, The Savage Detectives surely belongs to the lineage that includes Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest: big books about, in part, exhaustion, detumescence, cycling down. And the target reader of such books surely belongs to a lineage that includes the aforementioned record collectors. Usually young, usually male, and invariably obsessive, this reader enjoys clambering across vast tracts of the craggiest narrative turf, knowing full well there’s no destination, no resolution at the end. Like Sisyphus, he enjoys the mastering of the hopeless task.
The visceral realists, I suspect, wouldn’t care much for Chowder; and Chowder, his head in the latest Oliver, wouldn’t have heard of the visceral realists. Still, in spite of their superficial differences in taste (superficial because bad taste is bad taste) they have something in common: They’re underdogs. As such, they refer us to earlier breeds of underdog, including Stephen Dedalus and J. D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass. These underdogs may be, like Dedalus, on the cusp of forging in the smithies of their souls the uncreated conscience of their race, but they remain underdogs. We’re meant to root for them. But we’re not meant to read their poetry, or much of it, anyway. We’re presented with just enough of Chowder’s to wonder about its worth:
I walked upstairs behind her
Staring at her stitched seams
Normally she wore black pants
But it was the last day of the year
That she could wear the white ones
So she did
And we’re presented with none by the visceral realists, beyond Tinajero’s one poem. This missing poetry probably doesn’t amount to much, but the fact of its absence allows it to stay mythical: unmade but unmarred. Our libraries are poorer for having only scraps of Sappho’s body of work, but our imaginations aren’t. (Pynchon’s Vineland was much better during the seventeen years when it was a mere rumor, going viral.) Cleverly, Bolaño—who was also a poet and could have ghostwritten some poems for his visceral realists—leaves the poems between the lines, where they can only raise expectations, especially in the young.
And it is often the young who invest the most in the idea of art, which doesn’t always return a profit. Bolaño’s poets invest so much in the idea of the poetry of Tinajero (a modern-day Sappho with even fewer scraps) they fail to notice the idea is a Ponzi scheme that will never pay off. But in following their quest for Tinajero, I too got caught up in the sheer adventure of it all. Just what will happen, I found myself wondering, if they actually find Tinajero? Will she recite a poem so spectacular that everyone in earshot, myself included, will spontaneously combust? Probably not, since the only extant poem of hers is a concrete poem meant to be seen, not heard. But when Bolaño knocks off Tinajero almost as soon as she’s found, and, worse, denies the reader access to her notebooks (the Dead Sea Scrolls of visceral realism), he knows what he’s doing: reserving by cruel twist of plot the myth of Tinajero. Who wants her actual poetry? Her life is poetry enough.
The short life of Seymour Glass is poetry enough, too: a haiku. Seymour serves a sentence as a child radio star; later, he serves in WWII as a combatant. He winds up as an English professor and, finally, a suicide. But what Seymour really was, his brother Buddy insists, was a poet. “And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.” The poet, we learn, did actually write some lines—184 poems’ worth, to be precise—but the reader is privy to just four, a quatrain of charming juvenilia: “John Keats / John Keats / John / Please put your scarf on.” In the wake of Seymour’s suicide, Buddy is entrusted with the job of securing a publisher for the poems. Until Buddy does so, the poems can’t be shared with the reader—they can only be paraphrased, by order of Seymour’s widow. It’s a neat trick on Salinger’s part: We have to take Buddy’s word that Seymour’s “un-Western” and “lotusy” poems are as good as he claims—so good, so pure, that their publication will be their soiling. In fact, the publisher he has in mind will inevitably
…bear them away, right off to his shady presses, where they’ll very likely be constrained in a two-tone dust jacket, complete with a back flap featuring a few curiously damning remarks of endorsement, as solicited and acquired from those “name” poets and writers who have no compunction about commenting in public on their fellow-artists’ works….
But having talked up his brother’s poetry, Buddy has the presence of mind to ask, “Do I go on about my brother’s poetry too much? Am I being garrulous? Yes. Yes.” And in a tangent on Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (that classic of survey-course curricula to which Chowder refers us), Buddy wonders, “Is it conceivable that [Shelley’s] life is outliving much of his best poetry?” Buddy, singing his brother’s praises, seems to suspect that poets must do more than cultivate what he calls “Racy, Colorful Lives”; they must either sing or, as Buddy puts it, “give us one good field mouse, flushed by the heart, in every stanza.”
At least Stephen Dedalus manages some song: He labors over a villanelle, and the reader even gets to read it. (“Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze,” goes one line.) But, as Seamus Deane suggests, the villanelle is hardly worth the effort: “[Dedalus] forsakes everyone, he goes off armed with a half-baked aesthetic theory that, after mountainous labour, has only produced a little mouse of a poem; he dedicates himself solemnly and humorlessly to an absurdly overstated ambition.” (Deane, unlike Buddy, demands more of a poem than mere mousiness.) Dedalus’ next attempt at song has its premiere in Ulysses:
On swift sail flaming
From storm and south
He comes, pale vampire,
Mouth to my mouth.
It’s the juvenilia of a goth—an Irish one who doesn’t favor eyeliner, but a goth just the same.
Dedalus, to his credit, does suspect that he’s a bit ridiculous. Walking along a beach, he recalls his younger self:
You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W. Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?
Dedalus is only slightly more productive a poet than Little Chandler, the newly married father in Joyce’s short story “A Little Cloud.” Little Chandler would like to “write a book and get it published, that might open the way for him.” In fact, “[t]here were so many things he wanted to describe: his sensation of a few hours before on Grattan Bridge, for example. If he could get back again into that mood….” But Little Chandler has a crying child to rock. He stands for every aspiring poet who has ever tried to settle into a rhythm of work, only to be interrupted by progeny, domestic duties, the white noise of family life.
Joyce’s poets aren’t as productive as Bolaño’s Madero, who, at the age of seventeen, can take the following inventory:
How many poems have I written?
Since it all began: 55 poems.
Total pages: 76.
Total lines: 2,453.
I could put together a book by now. My complete works.
Still, Dedalus and Madero share a fantasy: They want to possess an oeuvre, without having to give too much thought to what it might consist of. (The reader certainly never gets to inspect Madero’s metastasizing body of poetry, which remains as abstract a proposition as Dedalus’ trilogy, “F,” “Q,” and “W.”) Dedalus, I suspect, would have found kindred spirits among the visceral realists; and they, in turn, would have found a solid travelling companion in Dedalus, who, by the end of Ulysses (which constitutes a virtual walking tour of Dublin) has demonstrated that he has the legs for entropic quests. Indeed, in another time—the 1940s, say—the visceral realists would have travelled to Manhattan in the hope of reading (or, better, coming close to reading) one of Seymour’s “lotusy” poems. They would have loved to learn that Seymour is dead, his suicide an apparent bonus. These are young men more interested in playing poet than writing poetry, more interested in the idea of poetry than the matter itself.
Even those fictional poets who would appear to be successful—who have actually written good poetry and been acclaimed for it—can seem like lovable losers. John Shade, the subject of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, is one of the great fictional poets, perhaps the greatest. The proof is in the poetry that Nabokov, a genius, donates to Shade:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!
These, the opening couplets of Shade’s last poem, aren’t the work of a young poet whose gaze is turned inward, but rather the assured output of an old man who, as a child, peered at windowpanes in which the reflections of furniture were made, by a poet’s emerging vision, to stand on snow. (The young Shade, one realizes, wasn’t posing in mirrors; he was working at poetry.) Shade is no Tinajero, living in obscurity, awaiting the pilgrimage of young followers, literary executors-to-be. His work has been recognized; he and his wife can tune in to a televised debate about poetry with the reasonable expectation that Shade will be mentioned. If anything, he has too devoted a following; after Shade is murdered, a mad scholar, Dr. Charles Kinbote, absconds with the manuscript of Shade’s last poem and— fitting it with a commentary—imposes his own meanings on it.
Shade becomes a victim of violence, both physical and scholarly. He is riddled with bullets and, worse, endnotes.
If not always charming, poets like Chowder and Madero are surely easier to like than the Speedo-wearing caricature of a Nobel Laureate in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Death Is Not the End.” The unnamed Laureate, having been “thrice rejected” by the Guggenheim Fellowship Committee, had decided that he’d simply be damned, starve utterly, before he would ever again hire a graduate assistant to fill out the tiresome triplicate Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship application and go through the tiresome contemptible farce of “objective” consideration ever again.
The visceral realists are definitely easier to like than the right-wingèd monsters in Bolaño’s encyclopedia of imaginary writers, Nazi Literature in the Americas. Ultimately, one’s reaction to the visceral realists reveals something about one’s tolerance for the sort of fiery, youthful rebellion that doesn’t require a lot of fuel—the sort that often runs on fumes. As John Updike observes—in a review of a book by, coincidentally, Nicholson Baker—“out of the books of others we sift a book of our own, wherein we read the lessons we need to hear.” Some will see, in The Savage Detectives, a loving portrait of the necessary pretensions of young poets. Those with a soft spot for the sheer idea of an avant-garde may just see a loving portrait, period. Experts on Mexican literature and historians of the 1970s will detect some real people behind Bolaño’s characters. Myself, I’m pretty sure I see some of the poets with whom I once took workshops: kids who weren’t especially sharp but still fancied themselves edgy; who felt that a poem about a spider ought to assume the shape of a spider; who organized themselves with the fervor of guerrillas, usually against those elements they deemed conformist; who were suspected of defacing a display case of faculty books, in protest against their exclusion from some official event at the university, some bit of pomp. (So-called “avant-gardists” never pout more than when they’ve been denied the sort of swag that they, as ascetic rebels, ought to spurn.) These, my peers, harbored what they believed to be a healthy mistrust of authority; they are the reason I now harbor a healthy mistrust of a healthy mistrust of authority.
And yet I do detect, in Bolaño’s poets, a younger version of myself, daydreaming about the stories I imagined Salinger was stockpiling in secret. In truth, I didn’t really want the stories; his hermit’s life was story enough. But to this day it’s safe to buy me a record if the artist who made it is some reclusive perfectionist. It’s even safer if the artist is dead and her one release a murky demo, a mere hint at what could have been. (I tend to feel, like the audiophiles in High Fidelity, the pull of the obscure.) So when Bolaño, without blinking, kills off Tinajero and closes the book on her oeuvre forever, some small, sentimental part of me is indulged. But we ought to be wary of overindulging our small, sentimental parts. Bolaño—and this is true of Baker and certainly Salinger—entertains not a little love for his fictional poets. And because these poets are modeled on actual people who once comprised Bolaño’s circle, the love can amount to self-love. (Belano, his name suggests, is really just a stand-in for Bolaño.)
Whatever we feel about Chowder or the visceral realists, we could probably use more representations of poets who aren’t lovable losers; who have enjoyed some success in areas outside of literature, such as medicine or insurance—poets for whom poetry is not the only obsession, not a means to revolution. We could do with more poets who, like T. S. Eliot, consider poetry a “supreme amusement”; more poets who, in taking poetry less seriously than, say, a visceral realist, just might wind up taking it more seriously. We could do with more poets who will assure us that they, too, dislike poetry. In general, we could stand to read about fewer adolescents, fewer failures, fewer white guys. We could stand to read about more cult figures—not the fetish objects of some avant-garde’s perpetual questing, but craftsmen, poets’ poets, inveterate scribblers in margins, on receipts. And we could stand more dry wits, more Sassoons, editing the work of the wet-behind-the-ears. We’ve had a lot of fictional poets who are easy to love; we need more who actually deserve it.