BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Nicholson Baker
2009, Simon & Schuster
The Anthologist is a book that’s hard to summarize, because it doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of. Paul Chowder is a middling poet with an unenviable career, who has compiled an anthology of rhyming poetry soon to be published. Paul is a procrastinator, and his dalliance in finishing the introduction for the book in time for his deadline exemplifies his attitude toward the rest of his life. Even when his girlfriend leaves him and finances crumble to nothing, Paul just wants to read and muse upon poetry. And the meat of this book is comprised of those musings.
I know how awful and boring that sounds. I read or heard somewhere (I don’t recall where, but I think it was KCRW’s Bookworm) this book described as a “love letter to poetry.” That phrase caused my gag reflex to kick in as likely did yours. I gave the book a shot anyway, and while I can’t argue with that description of Anthologist, I will argue that it turns out to be a good thing.
I am in no way versed (sorry) in poetry. I enjoy some, but read very little and have studied less. Although Chowder struggles to organize his thoughts into the introduction to his anthology, his narration is brimming with a wonderful knowledge and passion for poetry. At first I was put out and wasn’t sure this was a good book choice for me, but after a few chapters I changed my mind. His enthusasm is enchanting, as can be Nicholson Baker’s writing:
When we were almost done I paused, sprawled on my elbow on the floor, thinking about the song of the nails. There were four hammers going now, each with a different speed of hammering. A nail starts by sounding low because there’s more length of nail to vibrate, but as more and more of it disappears into the wood, its pitch gets higher and more strained. It goes bong, bang, bing, bink. And then, at the very end, just after the highest-pitched note, there are two or three confident wide low smacks when the nailhead has touched down and you’re hitting the whole floorboard–whang, whang, whang. We all wanted to sound like good nailers, and we all did sound like good nailers–and I think we were content in the midst of that happy racket.
Though it is unmistakably a novel, Anthologist delineates an excellent beginner’s course in poetry, specifically in rhymed verse. Chowder’s line diagramming and history lessons are actually informative, but the book still manages to be entertaining. And after a while I really started to feel for this loser with misplaced passions.
Paul is exactly how you would imagine an unsuccessful, unemployed, middle-aged, New Hamsphirite poet–not quite a failure: based upon his previous flirtations with success he still leads workshops and gives readings worldwide, oddly enough. Nicholson pens him wonderfully. Paul lives in a rustic old farmhouse, the kind of home where laundry is hung on a line to dry as a matter of course. He can be either scatter-brained or single-minded, sweet and passionate or obtuse and insensitive. A book like this sinks or swims on the back of its narrator protagonist, and Paul Chowder keeps things afloat comfortably.
Regular readers of poetry will find a lot to like in The Anthologist, but I think this book will be appreciated most by readers who, like me, take a casual interest in poetry and enjoy character- and narrator-centric novels.