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Book Review: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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Nicholson Baker's critically acclaimed 2009 novel, The Anthologist, is now available in paperback. It is the story of a middle aged poet living in New England, dealing with aging, writer's block, and the loss of his live-in girl friend. Paul Chowder is a poet who has had some limited success — he has published several volumes of poems; he has won a Guggenheim; but he has never reached the heights of poetic stardom. Besides, whatever success he did have was long ago when he was young, and since, as he notes, poetry is an art that belongs to the young, future successes are unlikely. He has edited an anthology of poetry called Only Rhyme, and his publisher is hounding him for an introduction he is supposed to have written. Roz, the love of his life, has moved out because he keeps putting off writing. All he seems capable of doing is sitting on his white plastic chair and pontificating on poetry and poets.

The novel takes the form of a long monologue as Chowder ruminates on life and love but mostly on the art to which he has devoted his life, poetry. It is his voice, sometimes playful and mischievous, sometimes dark and serious, often erudite and imaginative, that gives life to what otherwise might have come across more as a dry dissertation on poetics than a work of fiction. It is Chowder's voice that brings life to the critical ideas he expounds, perhaps seriously, perhaps tongue in cheek.

Of course, his monologue is chock full of references to poets past and present, foreign and domestic, great and near great. He talks about Tennyson and Ginsberg, Louise Bogan and Sara Teasdale, Elizabeth Bishop, Alexander Pope and Ezra Pound, to name only a few. He samples their poetry to illustrate the variety of points he tries to make about things like enjambment, free verse, and prosody. But it is not all poetry, all the time. He peppers his literary commentary with references to popular culture: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Tetris, Don Rickles, Rubik's Cube, and Project Runway. He invents words. Vachel Lindsay staggers around a basement going "erp orp erp". A line of a poem is so "boomerangey," it needs a new word for beauty. "Rupasnil. Beauty. Rupasnil. He likes puns and word play: "Orange you glad." "Sir, isn't that a steering wheel sticking out of your zipper? Yes, it's driving me nuts." At times he comments with an aphoristic intensity: "Hip-hop is our light verse." "Rhyme taught us to talk."

Chowder may be filled with doubts about his worth as a poet — indeed, his value as a human being — but the reader will have no doubts about his ability to entertain. Chowder, insecurities and all, would make an excellent dinner companion if his conversation came even close to his monologue.

The real question for the reader is how seriously to take Chowder's critical message. Iambic pentameter, the metric beat we have all been taught from our earliest literature studies, is the basic building block of English poetry. Not so, declares Chowder. English poetry really walks to a four beat line. Rhyme is essential to great poetry. Free verse is not even worthy of the name poetry. Teachers of creative writing are engaged in lying to their students, because they allow them to think the work they produce is worthy of attention. The greatest of poets have written perhaps one or two truly great poems; the rest of their work is likely to have been mediocre. Still that mediocre work is necessary. Two great poems alone will not a great poet make. There must be a mass to validate greatness.

While a reader may well be tempted to see in Chowder's rants and sermons a legitimate reaction against the excesses of modernism and a defense of the good old days when men were men and poetry was poetry, it would be a mistake to see him as a mouthpiece for Baker. No doubt some of what he says makes sense and may well echo ideas of the author. Still, Chowder is a character in a novel and everything he says should be seen in that context. On the one hand, he extols the virtues of rhyme, yet his own poetry doesn't always rhyme. Many of the examples he uses are not always as clearly illustrative of his arguments as he seems to think. He is uncomfortable with much of the poetry that he finds being published today.

One might compare his monologue to the monologues and soliloquies of Robert Browning. Those are poems which use a speaker to present the case for a position, neither a position espoused by the poet, nor necessarily one he would agree with. The point is not to convert the reader to the speaker's point of view, the point is to let the reader hear what he has to say, and then make a judgment, not only about what he says and the way he says it, but about the character of the person who is saying it as well. Not only must what Chowder says be judged by who Chowder is, who Chowder is must be judged by what Chowder says. This is the fascination of The Anthologist.

Readers should not be frightened off by the book's focus on poetry. Poetic passages always come in small easily digestible chunks. Critical ideas are normally presented jargon free. In fact, when there is jargon or technical language used, it is usually the object of scorn. If Paul Chowder is anything, he is entertaining. He will have you laughing and he will have you thinking. He may even have you taking a little peek at some anthology of poetry you may have gathering dust around the house.

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