THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker

Book Quote:

“This isn’t going to be one of those anthologies where you sample it and think, Now why is that poem there? No, this is going to be an anthology where every poem you alight on and read, you say to yourself, Holy God dang, that is good. That is so good, and so twisty, and so shadowy, and so chewy, and so boomerangy, that it requires the forging of a new word for “beauty.” Rupasnil. Beauty. Rupasnil….So good that you want to set it to musical notes of your own invention. That good.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (SEP 8, 2009)

Poetry lovers rejoice! Here comes a book for those who exult in word play and delight in the beauty of phrases that trip off the tongue. Here is a volume that savors and celebrates verse as a many-splendored thing: “For instance, ‘They flee from me that sometimes did me seek.’ Or ‘I had no human fears.’ Or ‘Ye littles, lie more close.’ Or ‘The restless pulse of care.’ Or ‘Give me my scallop-shell of quiet.’ ”

Here is a book that zestfully reminds us of the bond between poetry and music: meter, rhythm, cadence. The narrator tells us, “When I come across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. For instance, here’s a stanza by Sir Walter Scott. I’ll sing it for you. ‘We heard you in our twilight caves –‘ Try it again.” And next you see five bars of music, with the words underneath, nestled in the text.

Here is a book that bursts with vignettes about Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Mina Loy, Theodore Roethke, Sara Teasdale, Edgar Allen Poe, James Wright, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and so on. In fact, the title character — the narrator, the protagonist, the anthologist — is so caught up in poetry and poets that he occasionally indulges in thinking/imagining he’s almost rubbed shoulders with one of these deceased greats.

Here is a book that delves into the fleshy history of poetry, especially the counterbalance between rhyme and free verse. The anthologist again: “Now I want to make something clear. You may think we’re in a new age, a modern or postmodern age, and yes, in a certain way we are. But as far as rhyme and anti-rhyme go, this is the third time around, or maybe the fourth.”

Happily for us who relish full exercise of the creative mind, Nicholson Baker isn’t one of those authors who writes the same book again and again. His questing, restless brain treats his readers to a variety of subjects using both fiction and non-fiction. I still have the paperback copy of The Mezzanine I bought years ago, and it is still one of my favorite reads. Now The Anthologist, a novel I’ve been eagerly awaiting, has arrived and I’m happy to report it is everything I’d hoped. Baker, the astute observer and prolific sharer of life’s minutiae, sets us squarely into the summer of one Paul Chowder, a poet apparently once on the short list for the post of Poet Laureate of the United States. Let’s learn a bit more about him through a little rhymed poem of mine — it seems only fitting, rhyme being all that Chowder is including in his anthology and about which he tells us so much:

Paul Chowder suffers writer’s block;
He’d rather swat a shuttlecock,
or take a walk, or nail a floor,
or dish some poets’ tragic lore
than finish his anthology
and pen more free-verse poetry.

Procrastinating’s costing Paul —
Stopping him from scaling his wall;
His pretty lady Roz is gone,
his funds he’s almost all withdrawn.

Too aimlessly, or so it seems,
His day he spends on scansion schemes
And dishing Poe, Whitman, Loy, Pound,
Lowell, Bishop, and more renown’d.

What, we ask, will become of Paul?
Like Millay, will he tumble’n fall?
Or will his mundane, cautious life
Do more than cut him with a knife:
Lay fertile ground for fresh verse “plums”?
Dispatch, too, his ling’ring doldrums?

Paul Chowder is a bit of a shlub, by his own account. Actually, he comes across as a rather loveable, lumpy, middle-aged guy who’s at loose ends. He putters, often displays a short attention span, gabs and gossips (at least to us, on paper) and can get a little bawdy. Since Roz left, he’s slept with his books. His dog’s name is Smacko — exactly why we do not know. He’s deadpan funny sometimes. He buys impulsively, even though he owes a heavy credit card debt already. And he is klutzy: just playing badminton with the neighbors gives him a nosebleed, he manages to lop off bits of his fingers in the kitchen, and he reports more than once, “Woops — dropped my Sharpie.” Professionally, he just cannot apply himself to churning out the forty-page introduction to his anthology, Only Rhyme. And, in fact, he, sensitive soul he often is, is conflicted about who, for space reasons, he had to leave out of his anthology. He wonders whether this reluctance to exclude some deserving poets is fueling his writer’s block. Failure to produce the introduction turns Paul gloomy and whiny at times, but more often than not he compensates for his limbo status by entertainingly educating us with a barrage of oddly linked or not so linked facts .

For instance: “I’m sitting in the sandy driveway on my white plastic chair. There’s a man somewhere in Europe who is accumulating a little flotsam heap of knowledge about the white plastic chair. He calls it the ‘monobloc’ chair.’ Then Paul tells us the man’s name is Jens Thiel, says he (Paul) loves Europeans, especially the ones from “Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium….And of course: Amsterdam. What a great name for a city. Paul Oakenfold has a piece of trance music called ‘Amsterdam.’ His name is Paul, and my name is Paul. Paul: What is that crazy U doing there? Paw–U–L.”

You get the idea. Paul Chowder is a mental wanderer in his messages to us. He exposes his stream of consciousness very unselfconsciously and although that could, in less assured hands, become irritating, here Paul’s flowing from one subject into another endeared him to me.

After all, if it were not for Paul’s slump, he wouldn’t be addressing us. He would be diligently adding page after page to his formal set-length introduction, or he would be writing his “plums.” (Paul calls non-rhyming verse “plums” and he explains more about that in the book). Instead, as Paul himself states in the opening paragraph, “…I’m going to try to tell you everything I know. 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.”

By his own words, Paul shows us that despite his low self-esteem (at one point he upbraids himself with “Pull yourself together, you cairn of burning garbage….”), he loves poetry so much that he exhibits an unabashed confidence about it, and this gives this otherwise loserish character an attractive, if informal-feeling, authority. He informs us, “The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.” He continues, “People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter….But just remember…that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.”

And what is right here for Paul? He doesn’t hesitate to tell us:” ‘ Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still.’ I think that was the very first poem I heard, ‘The Pelican Chorus,’ by Edward Lear. My mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is.”

And, after giving a short lecture on ” ‘ virtual beats’ ” or “rests” at the end of many prominent poems, including a light verse by Christopher Morley, Paul again declares that the ballad stanza — “four lines together, four beats in each line — and sometimes with rests and sometimes without rests…that pattern makes up what’s called the common stanza or the ballad stanza, which is really the basis of English poetry. It was for Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, all the way through Yeats, Frost, Teasdale, Auden, Causley, Walter de la Mare, and James Fenton. Four beats is the key.” Paul is certain about this as a contemporary phenomenon also, pointing out, “…right now we’re in a time in which rhyming is going on constantly. All the rhyming in pop music. There’s a lust for it. Kids have hundreds of lines of four-stress verses memorized, they just don’t call it four-stress verse. They call it ‘the words to a song.’ ”

Paul, a poet who cherishes rhyme but writes unrhymed poems himself, says, “And we’ll forget almost all of the unrhymers that have been so big a part of the last fifty years. We’ll forget about the wacky Charles Olson, for instance, who was once so big. My poems will definitely be forgotten. They are forgettable.” He makes exceptions of course, including Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” which he calls a “perfect Talk of the Town piece.” But he doesn’t believe his work is memorable, another factor in his mid-life, muted crisis.

In a way, Paul laments the ordinariness of his life because, taking a look at the lives of many poets, they suffered. Many of them felt anguished, depressed, hopeless. He isn’t on top of the world, but reading him suggests he, although sensitive, doesn’t attach to life on quite the same level as, say, Sylvia Plath. Yet, a subtle suspense builds as the novel progresses; the reader wonders increasingly whether this unprepossessing anthologist/poet will emerge from his slump or sink further into it. We get invested in Paul and his small but remarkably idea-rich life. We root for him and want to give him a friendly but firm shove toward his writing implements.

Another big incentive for Paul to overcome his writer’s block is Roz. With characteristically unobtrusive poignancy, he edges into his narrative repeated references to Roz and even a few reports of them meeting and speaking. He misses her, worries that she is seeing someone else, and wants to win her back, and so quite apropos of his love for poetry, this mature and subtle love story unfolds too. After all, love serves as the fuel for so many sonnets, ballads, limericks, sestinas, and villanelles; what would a tale about a poet be without love?

Once one has read The Anthologist from cover to cover and savored its abundance of miscellany and its bountiful, absolutely lovely immersion in all things poetic, one can luxuriate in the language and the out-of-left field ideas by just letting the book fall open to a random page. Dive in anywhere. I’ll do it right now. Top of page 201: “…tollbooth I fished my wallet out of my pocket and turned it over and opened it very gracefully, and used just my thumb to lift a twenty out of its pouchy slumber.” Isn’t that winning and truly “boomerangy”? “Pouchy slumber.” Skipping down a bit: “I tore open a bag of vinegar-flavored potato chips and fished out one of them and turned it and touched my tongue to it, and drew it in without a sound.” Baker’s unique sentences carry a sweetness and a warming familiarity in their oddness. It is just a joy to read practically any excerpt.

By the way, potato chips aren’t the only food tongue-smackingly described (hm, did Smacko got his name from how he eats?) There is also ice-cube cold potato salad, which Paul wishes Roz were around to make. And Paul picks heavily ripe midnight blue blueberries. Then there’s a little rant on the extra butter flavor in the butter, and a chicken leg from his neighbor, Nan. Anything to keep Paul from having to stare at an empty piece of paper.

As mentioned, Paul’s anthology contains exclusively rhyming poems and he himself writes free verse. This irony reminds us that often it is the thing we believe we cannot do that we adore or even worship. Paul Chowder embodies the “common man” who thinks his best years are probably over, who is so awed by the thing he loves (rhyme) that he holds it away from himself (convinced he cannot do it justice), but who also harbors a secret longing for a different outcome. Still, he does not strain himself unduly to be freed of his writer’s block. In fact, he just goes about his relatively undistinguished life, adding to his storehouse of miscellaneous information, picking up odd jobs (such as laying a floor), and giving an occasional poetry reading to a dozen or so. He never ceases to notice things, he never ceases to learn things. And those are the marks of a dogged poet. As Paul says, “What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you write one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means….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.” Paul knows he isn’t a great poet, but he does labor diligently in his own way. He keeps going to the “vineyard” and “working,” even if it isn’t always directly with his Sharpie. He sees the world through the eyes of a poet and then shows it to us. That’s a glorious talent too.

Of course, it is really Baker who deserves the accolades for the gentle amiableness that synergises with frank, unvarnished convictions about poetry. One can imagine that Paul Chowder is a considerable part of Baker who may not write the same book again and again, but whose desire to investigate and discuss a myriad of topics often leads him to write works with a loose major theme and plenty of elbow room for “digressions.” The Anthologist is perfect for unleashing that propensity. It is a patchwork quilt that allows one to peer closely as the fine stitching and admire, then take a step back and see one square, and then pull back enough to take in the entire carefully integrated picture-ode. It is a delectable, relaxing immersion in a man’s everyday world. And it is a wise, funny, somewhat unorthodox primer for poets and would-be-poets that arguably teaches as much or more than starchy, rigorous textbooks.

I’ll just conclude with this enthusiastic endorsement: on my list, The Anthologist is easily one of the best books of 2009. Get comfortable and wrap yourself up in it. And maybe write yourself a rhyme or “plum” of your own. Or borrow a ballad verse and compose your own little tune while you’re at it. Have fun.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 49 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster (September 8, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Nicholson Baker
EXTRAS: The New York Review of Book pageComplete Review on The Anthologist
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More on the writing life and poetry:

Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plathby Kate Moses

The Calligrapher by Edward Docx

Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz

And Nicholson Baker’s latest:

House of Holes: A Book of RaunchВ 



Written his wife:

September 8, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· 4 Comments
Tags: ,  В· Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Literary, Washington, D.C., y Award Winning Author

4 Responses

  1. Mary Whipple - September 9, 2009

    Kirstin, this is a fabulous review! I have the book, and I haven’t started it, but you make me want to get going on it asap! I like poetry, though my attention span these days limits it to short installments (probably a leftover from the MANY years I spent teaching it and trying to justify its charms to 19-year-olds who were more into the abbreviations of text messaging). This is a terrific review of a book that I can now hardly wait to read. Best, Mary

  2. Kirstin - September 9, 2009

    Thanks, Mary. I just loved this book. There were so many phrases, sentences, verses, etc. that it just seemed wrong to leave out of the review so it got longer and longer, lol.

    I can’t read a lot of poetry at once either, but one of the attractions of THE ANTHOLOGIST is that Paul Chowder’s comments move briskly from one aspect of poetry to another. He talks a little about meter, then shares a little biographical information about this poet or that, then shows us one of his musical efforts, etc. There are some wonderful excepts from famous (and not as famous) poems, but reading this novel is much more diverse than reading a collection of poems.

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Kirstin - September 17, 2009

    I’ll add a brief note here: yesterday evening Nicholson Baker gave a reading from THE ANTHOLOGIST near my home and, naturally, I made sure to go.

    It was great fun to hear him read aloud — he injected the exact emotions and tenors one attributes to his character, Paul Chowder. When one reads the novel, one suspects (as I noted in my review) that Chowder is a somewhat skewed alter ego of Mr. Baker’s, and indeed the author willingly confirmed that. So, listening to him read “Paul’s” amusing, quirky, and yet poignant words was like having Paul come alive in the person of the one who knows him best. This was intensified because “Paul’s” prose has a rhythm of its own when one reads it silently to oneself. Hearing it aloud joyously and eerily unerringly reinforced the “voice” that had already been heard in one’s own mind.

    It was an honor to be able to see Mr. Baker in person and hear him extrapolate about THE ANTHOLOGIST and other aspects of writing, particularly his own experience. It was also wonderful to speak with him one-on-one for a few moments after his presentation. As I left the bookstore, I felt I was on literary cloud nine.

  4. dougbrun - October 2, 2009

    K – A wonderful review, indeed. I too heard Baker read–last night, here in my home town of Portland (Me). (He lives in Maine.) Literary cloud nine is a good way to explain it. I mentioned to a friend that “he’s the deal,” a true literary voice with a unique vision. And his presence is so quiet and unassuming.
    I had hoped to review this book, but when I asked for it, Judi told me you’d already snagged it. Good for you. I must get to it.

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