Friday, February 4, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

THERE’s NO EITHER – OR – DIVISION with poems. what’s made up and what’s not made up? What’s the varnished truth, what’s  the unvarnished truth? We don’t care. With prose you first want to know: Is it fiction, is it nonfiction? Everything follows from that. The books  go in different places in the bookstore. But we don’t do that with poems, or with song lyrics. Books of poems go straight to the poetry section. There’s no nonfictional and fictional poetry. The categories don’t exist.anthologist
Paul Chowder is an aging poet, with one award (a Guggenheim,  years ago) and little else to his name.  His career is floundering, his girlfriend has moved out, and he has writers block, in fact he will tell you himself "My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I'm a study in failure." His one lifeline is to write the Introduction to an anthology of poetry, called Only Rhyme, and even this he is failing in, he’d like to do it justice, he’d like to to unveil the mysteries of rhyme and metre, but is not sure he’s the right man for the job. He spends his time contemplating the suffering of the great poets throughout history and whether his own angst is enough, he happily discusses the various  poetic forms and the problems of iambic pentameter and it’s adverse effects on  English-language poetry.Through these musings you learn some of the history of poetry, he will pass on tips to help you write - anything rather than attempt to write himself. All his rambles, discussions, all his procrastination is merely strategy not to write the introduction.
Yet what he reveals is a love for poetry, a love that encompasses not just the greats, your Swinburne's, Tennyson’s, Longfellow, but all those that have followed, regardless of their supposed literary worth.
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still”. I think that was the very first poem I heard, “The Pelican Chorus” by Edward Lear. My mum read it to me. God it was beautiful.  Still is. Those singing Pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bars of yellow sand, and they swapped their verb tenses so that then was still and still was then. They were the first to give me a shudder, the shiver the grieving of true poetry---  the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right.  In fact it was better than if it had been right. 
If you love poetry, you will love this book, no prevarication, You Will Love This Book. If poetry was a joy, a love that you put aside as childish whimsy, this will re-introduce you to that love, will spark a curiosity, that will combust to no mere bonfire in your heart.  


Nicholson Baker(Wiki)
Nicholson Baker(Pub)
This was the review that sparked my interest in this novel – A common Reader

7 comments:

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

I did enjoy this book, though I grew a little weary of his whining. I'm not a poetry reader--just what my husband chooses to read aloud to me because he IS a big poetry reader. But I learned a lot about poetry in this book and laughed quite a lot, too. your cover is very different from the US one I know. Is it Australian or UK? Who published your edition?

theartofreading said...

A few months ago, I asked my friend (and colleague at the bookstore where I work) for a book I could read to cheer me up, and she recommended The Anthologist. And I loved it.

Maybe my favorite part was the bit where Paul talks about how, after choosing a bunch of poems for an anthology, you go back through them and realize that there's actually just a particular stanza that you really, a particular line that is perfect.

And then, if "you stare for a while at one of the single lines--stare into its rippling depths where the infant turtles swim--you realize there's usually one particular word in that line that slays you. That word is so shockingly great...and so then all of your amazement and all of your love for that whole poem coalesces around that one word."

Then he imagines making an anthology of just those shockingly great words. That whole passage described so perfectly how I feel about certain poems, and certain words in my favorite poems that just take my breath away every time I read them. Lovely novel. Glad you liked it too!

parrish lantern said...

As the Crowe Flies and Reads. The copy featured is published by Simon & Schuster Ltd & I got my copy to read from my local library here in the UK, your the 2nd, 3rd including myself who learnt about poetry from this book, but to me this was a minor quality of the book, it's the love of verse that really shines.

theartofreading, yes I loved that bit & felt the book was full of sections like that, including the bit I quoted concerning Lear. I'm also in agreement concerning individual words, being the key to a piece & made me think about my love of words, which extends to a sizable collection of dictionaries & having phases of having a favourite word - It's petulant at the moment, which is fantastic as at the moment the weather is a petulant storm.

Tom C said...

I'm glad you liked it. It certainly re-kindled my interest in poetry (which tends to come and go), and I learned a lot about rhyme too.

parrish lantern said...

Thanks for the heads up On this book, It was your post On,it that inspired me to check it out, hence the credit & link at the bottom. As for the poetry I have Faber's book of 20c poems, Derek Walcott's TS Eliot prize winning, The White Egrets, & his Omeros based on Homer & the Odyssey, hopefully coming up soon.

Anonymous said...

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