The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In The Anthologist American writer Nicholson Baker writes about my hobby horse, poetry. He waxes throughout his new novel about meter and beats. Not all the time, of course. There has to be a story in there somewhere, or it’ll be merely a teaching text for poetry.

However, the main character, one Paul Chowder (like the milky seafood soup, you know) can be quite pedantic, going on about how ‘poetry is prose in slow motion’ and ‘iambic pentameter is a slow waltz’. All of this very revealing when he goes on to expand on this syllogism.

According to this poet ‘the four-beat line is the soul of English poetry’. He is adamant that the pentameter has actually six beats. The sixth is the 'rest' beat, an invisible beat.  That’s quite a revelation, to me. He tries to prove his point by giving us examples. And these are done up quite pictorially, with highlights and such. Sometimes he can go overboard, by turning some bits of poems into music – you get to actually see the music notations illustrated.

Waxing about four-beats, he is, very much, referring to free verse. And, he calls it – the poem – that doesn’t rhyme a plum. Thus the explanation for an illustration of a plum on the cover. He believes that our instinct for rhythm already begins immediately, right after birth. ‘You’re already parsing through, looking for similarities and differences, looking for patterns, looking for beginnings and endings and hints of meaning.’

All this is his way of procrastinating on writing a introduction or foreword for a anthology, of all things, of rhyming poems. His girlfriend, Roz, who lives with him, has enough of this, and moves out in frustration. Sans girlfriend, this may seem kinky but he brings books into his bed. Sometimes we do bring a book to bed, as comfort reading before dozing off; but this is a tinge too much.

Paul teaches his pet subject poetry, but he gives it up, and now he helps his neighbor Nan fix her floor. Later on in the story, when he goes to Switzerland on a conference, he is asked to give a sort of master class on poetry. There, he is overcome by emotions and breaks down in front of his class. Which really clinches the reality that this man cannot teach, ever. Even so, outside of the classroom he is still capable of giving us advice. Like, copy your poem out into a notebook, with a ball-point pen, no less. He promises there’ll be immediate results in your next poem. And this: ‘If you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if the feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess.’

Paul believes our instinct for rhythm already starts right after birth. ‘You’re already parsing through, looking for similarities and differences, looking for patterns, looking for beginnings and endings and hints of meaning.’

If any one of us readers write a lot, to practice our craft, as an exercise, he has this to say: Can anyone be said to write too much? He said of Swinburne that ‘Swinburne is like application of too much fertilizer to a very green lawn’.

In between all this poetic proselytizing about four-beat poetry, he goes about his days cleaning up his office, which is a barn. He interacts with his neighbors, especially Nan, who gives him some sort of employment, plays badminton with them and ruminates about the shuttlecock. He cares for his dog, and uses him to bait Roz back, like asking if she’d like to come bath him. He hurts himself, cutting his fingers, and has to call up Roz, to come over and patch him up.

In the end, all I can say is this is a feel-good book. As with all of Baker’s novels, you cannot really pin down any solid plot. Events happen as the character gets on with life, showing us how he does this, with very readable details. Definitely one of Baker's best novels since A Box of Matches, one of my all-time favourite comfort-reads; one that can sustain re-reading, in bed.

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