A critic with writer's block tries to work through his thoughts on poetry.
"Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I'm going to try to tell you everything I know." So begins Nicholson Baker's thinly plotted though delightfully written discourse on rhyming poetry. As the book opens, Chowder, a cash-strapped 50-something poet/critic, has been deserted by his longtime lady friend. She, it seems, is frustrated by his inability to complete a 40-page introduction to his anthology of rhyming poems. The novel is Chowder's effort to talk through his thoughts on verse, and we're the listeners.
Unlike Chowder, Baker has been extremely prolific since the publication of his first novel, "The Mezzanine," in 1986. He is a master of the tightly focused, short novel. "U and I," for instance, concerns his narrator's obsession with John Updike, and "The Fermata" details the consciousness of an office temp during one afternoon. "The Anthologist" chowderizes a broth of romantic longing with hearty chunks of poetic manifesto, and the result is a fascinating, often hilarious discourse on where poetry is today and why that's bad.
While our narrator at times seems like Holden Caulfield at the doorstep of the adult world, he is self-assured on things poetic. He eloquently expresses his love for poetry's sounds and its indifference to facts. Rhyme, he believes, is a neural key to classifying and remembering words (consider Dr. Seuss' works and catchy song lyrics). Moreover, you can open a volume of poems, he notes, and always be at the beginning. Perhaps the same might be said of Baker's novels, which are less an unfolding set of events than an education in consciousness.
"The Anthologist" has its heroes and villains. Chowder imagines chance meetings with "Ed" Poe, Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop and speaks of their artistic power. Sara Teasdale, largely ignored by anthologies today, similarly inhabits his Hall of Fame. But ever since "Walt Whitman's preacherly ampersands," poetry has never been the same. Free verse becomes "merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly," and Chowder rues the decline of rhyming verse, elbowed into near oblivion by proto-fascist Filippo Marinetti and "blustering bigot" Ezra Pound. He also has little use for iambic pentameter ("five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting").
This novel is full of stories about poems and poets, tips to aspiring poets (read the poem aloud in a Beatles accent) and brilliant moments, as when Chowder realizes that frequently it is only a single word he values in a poem, and envisions an anthology of such words. Smart, quirky and funny, "The Anthologist" offers plenty of enjoyment. I whipped through it and look forward to rereading it.
Thomas Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.