The Anthologist

the Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

the Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Have you read the new novel by Nicholson Baker? I highly recommend it to poets, failed poets, would-be poets, readers of poetry (are there any of those who aren’t in the first three categories I listed?) and lovers of rhyme and wordplay. Nicholson has a riotous time within his character of Paul Chowder, a mid-level poet who is anguishing over an Introduction he has agreed to write for an anthology of rhyme. From the very direct first phrase (“Hello, this is Paul Chowder…”), Baker creates with hilarious effect the simultaneously brilliant and befuddled character.

The core of this character, of course, is poetry – its challenges, rewards, opportunities, threats and crazy-making contortions. Baker / Chowder’s arguments for and against various poetic practices are deep enough to ring authentic, yet accessible enough to be fun for (I suspect) most thinking readers.

At one point, he talks about how most great poems are really just good poems with a great stanza or two. And those great stanzas really are made great by a wonderful line. And, really, when you break it right down, every wonderful line turns on a particular word – a word used in such a strikingly novel context as to throw new light on everything that came before and after. Chowder then playfully muses on whether an anthology of great lines might be marketable.

“And so you think, maybe I should have made an anthology of individual words taken from poems. Like this: ‘sometime’ – Thomas Wyatt. Or: ‘quiet’ – Sir Walter Ralegh. And of course that’s not going to work. That’s just a bunch of disembodied words plucked from great poems. And that when you realize you’re not an anthologist.”
Chowder’s analysis takes him deeper and deeper, in this fashion, and not surprisingly his personal life comes apart like the great poems he simultaneously loves and envies. As a reader, you rejoice for him when he hits an emotional epiphany that allows him to relax and begin putting it all back together again.

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