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Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist

Baker is the master at writing about very ordinary events in life – looking after one’s child, going up an escalator, phone sex – and making them into something very funny and poignant. Here he takes on poetry. Poetry is not, of course, very ordinary but the person through whose eyes we see it is. He is Paul Chowder, a not very successful poet, who has two problems. Firstly, his girlfriend of eight years, Roz, has walked out on him. One of the main reasons she has walked out is because of the second problem. He has compiled an anthology of rhyming poetry (rhyme is very important for him) and had to write an introduction to the anthology. He cannot do so. He does not know where to start or what to say. Roz has urged him to write it and so has his editor but he just cannot. We follow the events of his life over a period of a few weeks, while he struggles with this issue.

Actually, he does not struggle very hard. He cannot write it so he is not going to do so. He does other things instead. He tidies up his office (it was a barn owned by his parents) and tells us his technique. He interacts a bit with his neighbour, Nan, even helping her (for a fee) to lay a new floor. He travels around a bit, visiting the John Greenleaf Whittier home and even going to Switzerland for a poetry conference. He worries (but not too much) about the state of his dwindling finances. He plays with his dog. He misses Roz and thinks of her a lot. However, above all he muses about poets and poetry.

I learned far more about poets and poetry from this one (fairly short) book than I have learned in my whole life from teachers and my own reading. Chowder gives us his views on metre, poetics, rhyme vs. free verse (he writes in free verse but thinks rhyme the far superior form), the history of poetry, language in poetry and, of course, on numerous poets. Indeed, he actually meets some of these poets, seeing Edgar Allan Poe in a laundrette in Marseilles or Ted Roethke walking down the street wearing just one shoe. It could have been very boring but Baker’s great skill is to tell it in his usual chatty manner and mix it in with the other plot elements so that you end up learning a lot without being in the slightest bit bored. Chowder seems a likeable man, if something of a loser, till you get him on poetry and then he is wildly passionate and has all sorts of theories about it, often at odds with experts.

Of course, Baker’s novels, though about trivia and witty musings on life, are also about getting from here to there. Chowder has to try to get his introduction written, get a life and a job and get Roz back. Though his attempts and success or lack thereof at these are very much part of the novel, they are almost secondary to his thoughts on poetry and his general thoughts on life, particularly his life. But, as Baker is such a fine writer, it all works well and, frankly, we don’t really care about the introduction or Roz or his life and I am not sure Baker does either.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Simon & Schuster