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The Anthologist: A Novel

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Nicholson Baker

Starred Review. In Baker's lovely 10th novel, readers are introduced to Paul Chowder, a study in failure, at a very dark time in his life. He has lost the two things that he values most: his girlfriend, Roz, and his ability to write. The looming … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Nicholson Baker
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
1 review about The Anthologist: A Novel

Poetry plums and rhyming suspense

  • Sep 23, 2009
A conversational ramble on poetry by a sad sack unable to write the introduction to his new anthology - sounds off-putting, I know. But Baker's latest novel is a delight. It charms, beguiles, stimulates and enchants.

It burrows deep into the funny, quirky, quick-witted, schlubbish soul of narrator Paul Chowder and explores the lives of the racier, weirder, sadder poets too.

Paul, a respected poet in his mid-fifties - well, he still gets invited to do readings and participate at poetry conventions in Switzerland and, of course, edit anthologies - finds himself at a low point. He's a slob. Roz, his girlfriend of eight years, has left him. He doesn't publish much anymore and he feels washed up. Worse, he suspects he always was.

But then, in a more forgiving moment, he remembers how rare it is for a poet to produce transcendent lines:

"What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That's all it means. Don't try to picture the waste or it will alarm you....All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling."

Supposedly at work on the intro to his anthology, Only Rhyme, sitting in his white plastic chair in the vast empty space on the second floor of his barn at his house in southern Maine, Paul has decided instead to share everything he knows and thinks about poetry with us, the audience.

He has opinions about meter and rhyme and melody and enjambment. Iambic pentameter, he says, is a French import. English poetry has a walking rhythm, a four beat meter. Free verse is "slow motion prose," a "plum" rather than a poem.

But rhyme! "Rhyming is a powerful form of self-medication....Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next."

Which brings him to the great depressions of poets and the great lines that resulted. Louise Bogan: " `At midnight tears/Run in your ears.' " Auden: ` `Tears are round, the sea is deep:/Roll them overboard and sleep' "

Paul regales us with the passions and torments of great poets, obviously feeling that his own sore heart is a lesser thing in comparison with their towering love affairs, base deeds, and suicides.

His yearning for Roz runs through the book, an ever-present ache under his clowning and rhapsodizing about poetry and his anecdotes from the poets' lives and his other diversions, like cleaning his office, watching his neighbors out the window, or dragging his plastic chair out into the yard or down to the stream for the variety of it.

He begins to have minor accidents - falling downstairs, cutting himself - and turns to Roz for succor. Even as he keeps us hopping with his poetic theories, word play and incisive quotations, we begin to worry for his health and safety. To his great regret Paul is not a natural rhymer. Will he pull himself together, write the intro, win Roz back and pay his bills without benefit of rhyme?

Anyone who's ever been moved by a poem - no matter how long ago - will want to know.

Baker, (Human Smoke, Vox, The Mezzanine) lives in Maine in a place with a big barn and a stream - much like Paul Chowder's property. Baker has a white plastic chair and a strong interest in poetry too, but Paul's genial schlubbishness is all his own.

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