It helps to know a lot about poetry before starting Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. In part this is because the narrator of the novel, Paul Chowder, is a poet who has put together an anthology of rhyming poetry. As the novel opens, Chowder has been failing so spectacularly to write the introduction to his anthology that his girlfriend has left and his publisher is sending concerned e-mails. He responds by cleaning his barn’s office.
If you don’t know anything about the poetry world, The Anthologist remains a fascinating if lightly plotted study in obsession, creative ambition and the quirks of the human mind. Baker is a master of capturing thought in motion and does so without creating cumbersome modernist prose like James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Rather, in crystal-clear prose, readers get Chowder’s changing focus—from a website dedicated to his plastic chair to the sex life of Theodore Roethke. All blend before the essentially static background of Chowder failing to write his introduction, occasionally walking his dog and dreaming of the woman who left him.
- The Anthologist
- Nicholson Baker.
- Simon & Schuster $25.
- Amazon: The Anthologist
But if you are aware of poetry, Chowder presents an even more bizarre and complex portrait of himself. Obsessed with rhyme and loathing free verse (which is what he happens to write), Chowder wanders his house with a Mary Oliver book; Oliver is a slight, free-verse nature poet who, in theory, represents everything Chowder loathes. Yet he rather inexplicably credits Oliver for saving his life. This seems to be Baker showing us how Chowder’s own mediocrity is comforted by that of others. We see a narrator who does not entirely know himself.
Other times, Chowder seems to vanish from The Anthologist despite remaining the first-person narrator, as during a detailed discussion of the work of W. S. Merwin, where Chowder becomes a stand-in for what seem to be the opinions of his author. Also, for an anthologist supposedly concerned with rhyme, Chowder has much to say that has nothing to do with rhyme but with meter; here he seems to be relying heavily on the complex scholarly work of Derek Attridge (Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction) in arguing for hearing an unorthodox stress pattern in poetry.
Other times, the criticisms Chowder offers are simply more biting and intelligent than the character Baker has created. How could the innocuous Chowder offer up this easy evisceration of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “It reads as if it’s written by a cleverly programmed phrase generator. It doesn’t sing.” Also hitting a wrong note is Chowder’s dismissal of the showiest and most talented rhyme-maker in American poetry, James Merrill, as simply a physically handsome man. At these moments the reader is left in some confusion as to whether the narrator does not know himself or if he has simply become a puppet mouthing inside jokes, opinions and random thoughts Baker has on the poetry world. I think it’s the latter, which makes for an engaging read if you care about poetry, but a weak novel if you don’t.
In the end, Chowder writes an introduction the publisher deems acceptable and starts some new poems. He is relieved at his mediocre achievement, because, as he tells readers, none of it matters. Chowder thinks the era of poetry is over; future scholars will be far more concerned with the writers behind sitcoms like Friends. But despite practicing and anthologizing what he considers a dying and degraded art, and doing so badly, Chowder is still obsessed. He talks to his neighbors, his neighbor’s child, his friend or anyone, really, about his thoughts on the iambic pentameter line (he hates it), no matter if they understand or care. Chowder even spends The Anthologist sleeping with poetry books in bed to fill the space left by his girlfriend. He also hallucinates encounters with dead poets to talk to about the art.
When everyone else is driven away, this becomes true for the reader as well. We are all the audience Chowder has left to talk poetry at. This is a point Baker makes clear from the opening sentence: “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I am going to try to tell you everything I know,” which is quickly modified to “everything I know about poetry.” They turn out to mean the same thing.
By the end of The Anthologist, Chowder offers the admission that he does not even like poetry.
He may not learn much about the world or even about himself in The Anthologist, but his opening salvo was the truth: Obsession has made his thoughts on poetry everything Chowder has to share about the world that is otherwise happy to leave him to his myopic focus.