The Anthologist

by Nicholson Baker

Paul Chowder is on the brink of failure. He is a moderately
successful but ultimately overlooked poet, the kind of poet who has
had his poems published in a handful of high-profile magazines but
has also received his fair share of rejection letters. Lately, he
has been unable to write a decent poem and is totally paralyzed by
the process of penning the introduction to an anthology he has been
hired to compile --- a collection of traditional and modern poetry
entitled ONLY RHYME.

Paul’s failure to complete (or even start) the
introduction has wreaked havoc on his self-confidence, his finances
(the credit card bills are mounting up, and he is seriously
contemplating --- gasp! --- teaching again) and his love life (his
longtime girlfriend Roz has moved out in frustration). Paul is now
left alone in his farmhouse outside Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Seeking companionship, he timidly attempts to connect with his
next-door neighbors and thinks about how to deal with his only
reliable visitor --- a mouse who has taken up residence in his
stove’s control panel.

Of course, Paul is not completely alone. He is surrounded by the
ghosts --- literally and figuratively --- of the poets who have
informed his own work and who form the core of his proposed
anthology. In Roz’s absence, he brings poetry to bed with
him, acknowledging that, although the poetry soothes him, the
books’ sharp corners aren’t nearly as comfortable as
Roz’s warm curves. And even as he installs flooring, mows the
lawn and cleans his office as a way to clear his mind, he is
constantly surrounded by his own ideas about poetry.

Paul is captivated by rhyming poetry, and he cleverly traces the
evolution of true poetry --- the kind that rhymes --- to
“free verse,” making an impassioned argument for the
rhythms, the rhymes, the constraints and the inventiveness
proscribed by poetry. True poetry, he argues, is encoded into us
and is as natural to us as learning to speak. Through the course of
his meandering exploration of poetry, Paul debunks the notion of
iambic pentameter as well as several other pieces of conventional
wisdom cherished by English majors everywhere. Instead, he argues
for a more musical interpretation of poetry and its rhythms, even
going so far as to set favorite stanzas to music. These musings, as
astute readers will guess early on, go on to form the basis of his
elusive anthology introduction.

Like Nicholson Baker’s other novels, the basic plot of THE
ANTHOLOGIST sounds fairly underwhelming. The pleasure of reading
this book, however, lies not so much in the plot but in the prose,
which is a playful mixture of the erudite and the mundane (the
ruthlessness of the choices faced by the anthologist is compared to
“that blond bitch-goddess on ‘Project
Runway’”). Paul’s story is also a fascinating
exploration of the writing life, of the moments of brilliance
interrupted by long periods of boredom and frustration, of the
kindly (and not-so-kindly) worded rejection letters, and of the
realization that one’s best work is already in the past.

THE ANTHOLOGIST will get novel readers --- especially those who
rarely read verse --- thinking about poetry, often in new and
surprising ways. Many adults have not read poetry since their
college literary survey courses, and the narrator’s unabashed
affection for poets and poetry just might inspire readers to pick
up one of the other anthologies that help warm Paul’s bed at
night. THE ANTHOLOGIST is a humble but passionate argument for
reading --- and loving --- poetry, for rediscovering forgotten
poets of the past, and for searching out the works of living poets
that can fulfill our instinctive need for rhythm, rhyme and the
play of language.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker

  • Publication Date: July 6, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1416572457
  • ISBN-13: 9781416572459