Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am a huge Nicholson Baker fan and that I loved The Anthologist enough to read it twice, one time right after the other. During the first reading I got caught up in the flow of the narrator’s thoughts and read quickly to the book’s end. But this is the kind of book I like to linger over to enjoy the ideas and the language, and so as I was zipping along during the first reading, I promised myself I’d read it again, this time more slowly, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I enjoyed the second reading just as much as the first.
Baker tends to write books that focus on capturing a character’s thoughts, and they often cover a very short period of time, for example the time it takes for the narrator to ride an escalator from one floor to another in The Mezzanine. That book covers a whole lot more than the escalator ride, moving back in time to tell stories and explain ideas, but still the present action of the novel is very short. The Anthologist is another novel about a character’s thoughts, but it covers a longer period of time and has something you might call a plot, or something that borders on it at least. Things happen and there is a bit of narrative tension.
But those things are mostly beside the point (to the extent that the wrapping-up at the end feels perfunctory, almost an ironic, knowing nod to the idea of plot). What really matters is what is going on the narrator’s mind. That narrator is Paul Chowder, a poet who has had some success in his life — he’s published some poems in magazines and has several books out — but now he’s faltering. He’s putting together an anthology of poetry to be called Only Rhyme, the idea being that rhyming poetry is poised to make a come-back, and he now has to write the introduction. But he finds he can’t write it. It just won’t happen.
This means his editor is calling him regularly, sounding more and more ominous each time, but more importantly it has also meant that his girlfriend, Roz, has left him. She has decided that he is just too helpless, too silly, too disappointing, too foolish for not writing that stupid introduction, and she is also unhappy that Paul can’t manage money and doesn’t earn much and then wastes time getting all angsty about writing the introduction instead of sitting down and writing it. I’ll admit I have some sympathy for Roz — and I can also see why she fell for Paul in the first place. He is an utterly charming man who is probably both delightful and difficult to live with.
The book itself is a record of Paul’s thoughts as he tries to write the introduction and as he contemplates how to get Roz back. He thinks about a whole lot of things, and his thoughts sometimes wander rapidly from one thing to the next, often without much of a transition. It’s an attempt to mimic the way the mind works, and it captures perfectly the way thoughts will pop up suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, and the way the mind will keep returning to particular ideas again and again, even if we don’t want it to.
Paul thinks a lot about poetry, obviously, and he tells us what kind of poetry he likes, his history of reading poetry, the kind of poetry he writes (these days it’s free verse, even though he prefers poetry that rhymes), his tricks for getting poetry written, his favorite poetry anthologies, and his theories about why rhyme matters and how rhythm works. He’s convinced that poets and scholars get it all wrong when they say that iambic pentameter is the most natural rhythm for the English language, arguing instead for the importance of the four-beat line, and he explains his point in language that’s clear and funny. He hates teaching, but the way he explains his ideas makes it clear he could be an excellent teacher if he wanted to.
He also thinks about Roz, of course, and the upcoming poetry conference where he will give a talk (which he dreads doing), the process of cleaning out his office, the interactions he has with his neighbors, and anything else that will fill the space Roz has left and that he can’t seem to fill with his work. What keeps this from getting dull — who wants to hear about someone trying to clean out his office after all? — is the absolute honesty with which he records the path his thoughts take, and his wonderful sense of humor.
Here’s a taste of what his voice is like:
People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting. They’re going to talk to you about Chaucer and about blank verse — another confusing term — and all this so-called prosody they’re going to shovel at you. And sure — fine — you can handle it. you’re up to whatever mind-forged shrivelments they’re going to dish out that day. But just remember (a) that the word “prosody” isn’t an appealing word, and (b) that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.
Woops — dropped my Sharpie.
Right here: One — two — three — four. “Plumskin, 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 mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is. Those singing pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bare islands 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 the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy 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.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to go read some poetry.
I have no idea if Baker writes poetry himself (one would think so reading this book, but who knows), but his use of language is marvelously inventive and fun. Another passage — Paul is talking about old magazines that published poetry “back in the day”:
The magazine is going to have some kind of big thoughtful piece about Teddy Roosevelt, say, and then it’s going to have a bit of serialized fiction, and it’s going to have some “cuts” — that is, some art — and a few color pages tipped in, maybe, if it’s The Century magazine, maybe by Maxfield Parrish, and it’s going to have some poems. The long nonficton piece comes to an end, and it’s about being a stevedore in Baltimore, something like that. And then at the bottom of the page is this poem in two columns, with six stanzas, and each stanza has indentations, and the conventionality and vapidity of it will stun you. “The shades of summer’s bosky hue, o’erlie thy modest floobie doo.” The editors of The Century didn’t expect you to read that poem with your full mind. They knew it was just some rhymes thrown pell-mell together with some cornstarch. They knew full well, because this is America, land of bad poetry. Yes, sir! Bad poetry, sir! Loads of it in the back, sir! Just keeps coming. Tipped in. The shovel eases the soft tonnage of poetry over the rim, and it just pours into the pit, pluth. The pit of what has been said. And the lost gulls are flapping and calling — peer! peer!
And yet we still want more. There’s still that craving. Give us more, give us new. The hope. The hope that really does: it springs eternal. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” That’s clean crisp iambic pentameter. And I have some tips to pass on to you about iambic pentameter, how it’s all a misnomer, as I said. But that’s for later.
Sorry about the long passages. I just get caught up in the flow of the words, and I don’t want to stop …
I’m a poetry fan, so I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think that non-poetry fans would enjoy this book as well. There is an awful lot of poetry talk, but the narrator makes everything clear, and I’d guess he might inspire some non-poetry fans to give poetry a try.