The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder -- a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He's having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction will be a little longer than he'd thought. What unfolds is a wholly entertaining and beguiling love story about poetry: from Tennyson, Swinburne, and Yeats to the moderns (Roethke, Bogan, Merwin) to the staff of The New Yorker, what Paul reveals is astonishing and makes one realize how incredibly important poetry is to our lives. At the same time, Paul barely manages to realize all of this himself, and the result is a tenderly romantic, hilarious, and inspired novel.
Me, all I need to do is think, “I shall rise now and go, and go to Innisfree,” from Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and I feel myself grow calm, my muscles go limp (“And I shall have peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”). Or I recall “Come slowly, Eden,” the Emily Dickinson poem my husband sent me by email after our first meeting, by which I knew that he and I were going to have a future. Poetry surrounds and sustains and informs us, makes us happy, makes us think.
I want to give The Anthologist to all of my husband’s students and tell them: “This, this is why you should love poetry. Paul Chowder will tell you exactly why it’s so wonderful, and you’ll finally understand.” The novel, narrated by Chowder, is an extended love letter to poetry. Chowder is a poet of some minor repute himself, and he has just finished putting together an anthology called “Just Rhyme.” All he needs to do to finish it and get the royalties rolling in is write an introduction. But Chowder has a case of writer’s block that just won’t give. As a result, we’re treated to his ruminations on poetry, a sort of talking rough draft as he carefully avoids doing any serious writing. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know,” he begins.
"Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you. I’m going to divulge them. What a juicy word that is, 'divulge.' Truth opening its petals. Truth smells like Chinese food and sweat."
And everything does come tumbling out, in ways funny and profound, silly and sensible, thoughtful and thoughtless. How else to explain a passage like this:
"My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure. Obviously I’m up in the barn again – which sounds like a country song, except for the word 'obviously.' I wonder how often the word 'obviously' has been used in a country song. Probably not much, but I don’t know because I hardly listen to country, although some of the folk music I like has a strong country tincture. Check out Slaid Cleaves, who lives in Texas now but grew up right near where I live."
Yes, it does seem like Chowder is a failure, but it’s apparent that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. It doesn’t make sense that he’s a failure when he’s able to not work at anything – he isn’t a professor/poet, has only taught a bit and hated it, and he doesn’t seem to have inherited money, so one is almost forced to conclude that he has made enough from his writing to sustain himself. The occasional job of manual labor can’t possibly be enough to sustain him. Roz, the woman he loves and who lived with him for eight years until she couldn’t deal with his writer’s block any longer, doesn’t seem to have supported him. And he’s been asked to be a featured guest at a seminar in Switzerland, so he must be a poet of some repute. Just who is this guy?
We never really find out – but we do find out a lot about poetry. Meter is Chowder’s particular bête noir. He believes that most poems rely upon a “rest” to fill out their meter, so that poetry that seems to have three beats usually has four. He doesn’t think much of iambic pentameter, either, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare. He’ll often spell out the meter, with little numbers in circles about lines of poetry to give us the beat, until we seem to be able to hear that rest, too.
He’s also big on rhyme, as you might expect from an anthologist who has just completed assembling a volume called Only Rhyme. He isn’t exactly opposed to free verse, and believes some fine poems have been written in free verse, but really, “I always secretly want it to rhyme. Don’t you, some of you?” He believes that a poem that doesn’t rhyme shouldn’t even be called a poem:
"It’s a plum, not a poem. That’s what I call a poem that doesn’t rhyme – it’s a plum. We who write and publish our nonrhyming plums aren’t poets, we’re plummets. Or plummers. And some plums can be very good – better than anything else you might happen to read ever, anywhere. James Wright’s poem about lying on his hammock on Duffy’s farm is a plum, and it’s genius. So is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, 'The Fish,' of course. 'I caught a tremendous fish' – genius."
A paragraph like that makes you want to run for your own anthologies, doesn’t it? I pulled my copy of Bishop’s poems from the shelf because I hadn’t read “The Fish” before. Chowder’s right about it; it truly is wonderful. You haven’t really looked a fish in the eye until you’ve read this poem, and you certainly haven’t understood how much we share with our piscine prey.
Chowder walks us through his days of thinking about poetry, and I started to understand what he was doing, because it’s familiar to me from my own writing. He’s writing his introduction to his anthology in his head, working it out, figuring out what he wants to say, sorting out what matters and what doesn’t. This is a vision of how a poet and scholar works. It’s brilliant. And it’s peculiar. I loved it for both characteristics.
The temptation to quote passage after passage is strong, but I will resist and simply tell you that you must read this book. Whether you like poetry or not, you really should read this book. Rarely have I seen an author take such joy in words and how they are arranged on the page, and it is definitely contagious. Baker is always doing something new and strange; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This time, it most definitely does.
With salted humor, on bended knee
Imploring grace for poetry.
Liked it a lot - a couple of chapters o'er the top with
the technical woo-woo, but mostly fab.
We root for Roz!
Paul Chowder's life isn't going particularly well. Sometime poet and current anthologist, he is struggling to write an intro to his anthology of poetry, ONLY RHYME. But his chronic procrastinating has left him without a girlfriend, without cash, and, it sometimes seems, without hope. Paul longs to win Roz back by completing the intro, but instead he seems to spend a lot of time sitting on his driveway in a white plastic chair.
But Paul is not your ordinary embittered failure. He is neither embittered nor a failure, in fact - just a sincere and genuinely kind guy who can still get pretty wound up when talking about poetry. His first-person narrative is funny, humble, sweet, and rambling - because he can't talk long without telling you something pretty neat about poetry, about meter, about enjambment or Edgar Allen Poe or Swinburne or what a good idea it is to to dance about in waltz steps to iambic pentameter.
Nicholson Baker (really? That's really his name?) has a marvelous gift for putting words together in such a perfect way that you think they must have been born to be placed just so. I loved this: "Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space...All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good."
Or this: "When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what's wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.
"I'm only a little messed up. I'm tortured to the pint where I don't sleep very well sometimes, and I don't answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something. Also, I've run up significant credit-card debt. But that's not real self-torture."
Paul's passion for poetry keeps this narration from sinking into greyness; it stays funny, lively, and fascinating throughout, until I wanted nothing more than for Paul to win back his short, loving, generous Roz - and finish that damned intro. Plus, he healed a long-standing wound in me by pointing out that iambic pentameter is not on five beats, but six or three, WHICH I TRIED TO TELL MY ENGLISH TEACHER IN HIGH SCHOOL (but she wouldn't listen.) Lovely, lovely book. And the cover is beautiful, too.
As both a lover of poetry and an aspiring poet, I had looked forward to reading this book and I was not disappointed. While this was a lighter read than I had expected, what with all of the critical acclaim, in its brisk stream-of-consciousness pace it remained true to character. This is my first Baker, but if this novel is any indication, he is a master of his craft.
In between his dryly hilarious musings on his sad sack life, Paul holds forth on poetry, explaining in a clear, entertaining manner why rhyme is often reviled, and why pentameter is just plain wrong. He quotes many poets, including Mary Oliver, who I read and enjoyed last year. Chowder made me like poetry, which I generally don't, and made me want to read more, which is unusual for me. There's not much by way of plot here, but there's plenty of Paul, who's a great character. And the ending is not only charming, but a clever way of reframing the book. This was a smart, quick, funny read that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Well, it's rather charming for awhile, but I'm afraid that eventually I found all this a bit affected and tedious. And I found myself arguing back against many of Paul Chowder's claims about poetry, even as I agreed with others. It's true that the character's passion for poetry--preferably rhymed poetry with four beats per line--shines through; but I also felt that his views were rather narrow. There's some real junk being published as poetry today--but also some very fine unrhymed free verse. The kind that irks me most is poetry that just plays with sound for its own sake and to show off the poet's cleverness, poetry that has no meaning behind it and creates no images to stir the imagination or the senses. And, oddly, that is the same way that Baker's prose began to affect me. By page 160, I started to skim because I just wanted to be done with it.
So I'm giving The Anthologist 3.5 stars for its originality and some moments of brilliance, as well as for making me laugh a bit, but I can't recommend it more highly than that.
You know how you're sitting in a class for the first time that semester, and realize that the professor is more than just an amazing teacher and you could listen to them lecture all day long? (Yeah, yeah not all of you are students so just go with it and pretend for a minute.) It doesn't matter the subject because you catch the enthusiasm of the teacher through the intensity of the words they say and the expressions on their face. Congratulations, Nicholson Baker, you've just created a new favorite professor.
Well. Maybe. The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder, a sometimes published poet working on an introduction to an anthology. His girlfriend just broke up with him because he can't find the motivation to finish the introduction, his editor is hounding him for the same reason, and he has this fascination with rhyming even though it's a talent he doesn't possess. In fact, his anthology is called Only Rhyme. Paul also has a knack for self-injury. More importantly, he has a knack for stringing words together that make you literally laugh out loud.
Actually, it's Baker that does that. He looks at poetry as a side salad, claims that death is his health insurance and makes a case for Friends as a legitimate representation of culture. And there's also discussions of rhyme, meter, how poetry works in French versus in English, a rant at Milton for screwing it all up.... I wouldn't mind reading a commentary by Baker on poetry at all.
This is where that "maybe" comes in. I could honestly do without the plot and I really don't like Paul. He whines a lot about his ex. And about his dog. And his office. His only saving grace may be his honesty. He knows he's procrastinating and he knows he's a whiner. In reality, the plot is more of a frame for the commentary anyway. In an interview, Baker talks about buying Sharpies and growing a longer beard, just to put himself in the mindset to write this book. I can respect that.
But again, I'd rather read his commentary about poetry and history than Paul's random thoughts on life.
The Anthologist is simple and profound, silly and useful.
It's a book about poetry for people who hate poetry.
And all you poem-huggers will embrace this as well.
BUY, BORROW or BURN?
1. As a novel: Nicholson Baker is not a major novelist. His sense of the offhand, the corny, the careless and carefree, the vernacular, and the informal, is too easily satisfied, and it amounts to too much of his sense of what contemporary writing can be. He is too easily convinced that home-town, unornamented, straightforward, honest description is the best way to write a novel. Or to put it the other way around: it is easy to see the kinds of writing he doesn't like -- they would include consciously developed styles and manners of all sorts -- but not easy to see why he is so content writing what he takes to be their opposite. I imagine he might justify it to himself as a development of the American novel after Updike, somewhat in the line of Ellis or DeLillo: a minimalist, anti-modernist, firmly North American, styleless style or mannerless manner. But it is weak, unable to account for its persistent low-level fear of writing.
2. As an essay on poetry: it's good, but not on topic. The narrator, a poet, is working on an anthology of rhymed verse, and in the course of the book he tells us many times how important and interesting rhyme is. None of the reviewers of the book seems to have noticed that he doesn't actually say more than a sentence or two about rhyme itself. The entire essay on poetry is about meter. On that subject, it's fun, clear, and entertaining, and I'd recommend it if it were published by itself, without the interlarded novel. And it's unfortunate that the poetry essay is all about North American poets, with the usual sprinkling of Victorian predecessors in a predictable canon (Swinburne instead of Browning, shout-outs to contemporaries like Graham who might read his book, etc.). And the review in the New York Times is absolutely right about Baker's lack of connection with the real poetry world, even in North America: Baker scarcely mentions publications other than "The New Yorker," and he imagines a poetry conference in Switzerland where the room is abuzz at the appearance of Paul Muldoon. That social isolation is of a piece with Baker's advocacy of rhyme and regular meter. If he were a student, I'd shut him in a room with some books of Celan's until he saw that meter can be broken in fascinating ways -- that poetry doesn't need to be either regular or simply "free" -- and that a poet's voice, like a novelist's, can involve more than just the assiduous mimicry of daily informal speech. I wonder if Baker thinks his loyalty to regular meter and rhyme (which he fails to separate) are a sign that he is not only contemporary and postmodern, but also a deep traditionalist: if so, that puts him very firmly in the NPR - PRI - Lake Wobegon set. This is just the kind of novel that makes Horace Engdahl right.
3. As a composite essay and novel: it doesn't work. When the essayist is in the room, he talks to us, asking us to try out the sound of lines, and even to sing along. But when the novelist is speaking, it's an ordinary first-person narrative. We are asked not to notice when we, the readers, are suddenly urged to disappear for a few minutes so the novel can resume. And we're asked not to be surprised when the character in the novel we're reading abruptly turns to us and asks us a question. It's not that this couldn't work: it's that Baker doesn't notice it as a problem. I think that's of a piece with his studied insouciance about voice: just say what you mean, don't gussy it up, and you're a novelist.