intensely trivial

Book review: The Anthologist

I hope you don’t mind a little digression into another one of my passions, reading. So now for a very imperfect review. I hope it tempts you to check out this book.

Poetry is a safe place for obsessive literary types to be as obsessive as they want to be. Or maybe it just so happens that Paul Chowder, the narrator of The Anthologist, and I happen to feel all sorts of freedom and fulfillment when we write and read and move about in the sea of poetry. The plot of Nicholson Baker’s novel revolves around the pressure that poet Paul Chowder is under to crank out an introduction to the poetry anthology he has compiled. Those of us who have taken a college literature course can probably identify with the burden of a paper as yet unwritten, and a thesis as yet undiscovered. For us in college, the only stakes were our grades. For Paul, it’s a longtime romantic relationship with his tenderly loved Roz, who has moved out of the house they shared, frustrated that Paul never makes any progress on his introduction.
Paul’s ruminations on poetry make up the bulk of this novel. I know that’s not attractive to every reader, but it’s an English teacher’s dream, only much cooler than you would imagine. Paul’s insecurities and quirks make the story quite entertaining, as we geekily and obsessively identify with him. As loserly as he appears, he actually makes many insightful observations about poetry, and the novel itself turns into a fun intro to poetry. (Sorry about all those -ly words.)
I wonder if that was, in fact, the inspiration for Nicholson Baker. Maybe he was bored by all the dull essays at the front of poetry anthologies, and maybe a friend said to him, “Well, if you’re going to complain about every intro there is, why don’t you try writing one yourself? Then maybe you’ll have more sympathy with the other intro writers.”
If that was Baker’s intent, he has more than succeeded. This novel has made me practically salivate for poetry, as one might yearn for a juicy peach, or plum. (Sorry, that’s an inside joke from the outside cover of the book.) Paul Chowder’s knowledge of poetry and poets is encyclopedic (it would have to be; otherwise, making an anthology would be presumptuous, right?); he dramatizes the world of poets, and believe it or not, he makes scansion interesting — you know, the practice of marking the rhythm of poetry. Thank you, Paul! What you say about scansion makes more sense than anything I have ever heard from my literature teachers! Even better, I realized that what I thought about poetic rhythm was perhaps on the right track after all!
Not only do I have a place in this literary world, but I recognize myself in the vulnerability of the relationship between Paul and Roz. Mundane though it is in all its facets, he draws out the metaphor in it. Into the void left by Roz, Paul brings his poetry anthologies.
“Over a period of four, five, six, seven, nine, twenty nights of sleeping, you’ve taken all these books to bed with you, and you fall asleep, and the books are there.
“Of course it was better when I had Roz in the bed with me. But I don’t have her now. Her warm soft self was extremely comforting, and it’s not there. I could cup her upward hip or one of her dozing boobies with my hand. Good times. That cupping is rhyme — the felt matching of two congruent shapes. And now where she would sleep are these books, and they’re lying there in leaning piles, and sometimes they slip off and nudge me in the eyebrow with one of their corners.”
I had never thought of the body as rhyme and the pleasures of the body as good rhyme. But it works, see? And his story is an effortless pleasure to read: profound, multidimensional, yet accessible and sweet.
In the end, whether Paul Chowder has written a successful intro to his anthology or not, he has led me, his reader, to the world of poetry after being away for a long while, and I want to see that world again for myself. This novel tantalizes me too much.
So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check out some Yeats, some Emily Dickinson, some Louise Bogan, or some Mary Oliver.

Baker, Nicholson. The Anthologist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.


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