The Anthologist

anthologistI admit that I started out this book with mixed feelings and a hefty dose of suspicion. Do you want the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the good news; good news is always nice. Here: The Anthologist is about poetry. Paul Chowder, the narrator, is a poet, and he spends a lot, maybe most, of the book talking about meter and rhyme and the way rhythm is stuck in our brains and bodies, and how important poetry and lyrics are to us whether we know it or acknowledge it or not, whether we ever read poetry deliberately or not. He talks about his favorite poets (even the dead ones) as if they might show up in his yard at any time and ask for a beer. He quotes Dryden and Swinburne and Tennyson, sure, but he also quotes Ogden Nash and Ludacris. He’s not choosy (except that he loathes and I mean capital Loathes Ezra Pound.) These are good reasons to read this book. It feels a lot like Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, except in novel form; it’s charming and convincing, and it makes you want to read more poetry, especially by the poets you haven’t encountered yet.

I was suspicious because, in general, Nicholson Baker doesn’t write novels I want to read. Vox, a book about phone sex, has a premise that doesn’t really appeal to me; The Fermata, a book about a man who can stop time in order to undress and/or have sex with women, even less. Also, you know how Jenny reads the end before she reads the middle? I picked up The Anthologist, trying to determine whether I wanted to try it, given Baker’s track record, and read this piece in the middle:

As I drove I thought, no, it really wasn’t that Whitman killed rhyme, it was that Jules Laforgue translated Whitman into French. The translating exoticized him, and then one day Laforgue wrote Gustave Kahn and said, Gustave, my frère, I forgot to rhyme. Because remember, a lot of French free verse is only sort of free. It rhymes and it scans, it just doesn’t follow the superstrict rules that Boileau laid down back in the day. But we aren’t really conscious of the traditionalism of the French symbolists because French vers libre in English prose translation doesn’t rhyme. The death of rhyme is really all about translation. Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet-voiced balladeer from a faraway land. Everybody read the prose in their own language, and then they imagined the glorious versificational paradise that they didn’t inhabit but that was glimmering greenly there in the original. The imagined rhyme-world was actually better and more lyrical than if they had the original poem in the original language with the actual rhyme scheme in front of them.

I don’t know if you see what I mean, but I kind of squinted at this. It’s what a friend of mine calls clever-clever. Here’s old Nicholson Baker having a lot of fun talking about translation and vers libre and so forth, and he’s also having a lot of fun with the language, and it’s a lot of fun to read, too. But I’m not actually sure it’s any good, and it’s so full of sweeping generalizations and so utterly without signposts that it’s not really true, either.

Paul, the narrator, is a rambling, digressive fellow, which I understand is Baker’s thing: he sacrifices narrative for the minutiae of one person’s mind. This is the narrative of someone who needs to write an introduction to an anthology of poetry, but who is so utterly blocked that his girlfriend has left him over it, and who is now simply rambling about meter and rhyme and blueberry-picking and his neighbors’ activities and Louise Bogan’s letters and the importance of Swinburne to the poetic landscape. The book is his gently opinionated, self-deprecating blather, trying to woo his girlfriend back and get his introduction written.

This book isn’t great. It’s okay. The parts about poetry are sometimes pretty good, and sometimes they’re kind of pretentious; the parts about Paul’s girlfriend are sometimes nice, and sometimes they’re pretty self-pitying and blind to any normal relationship dynamics. I liked the book more than I thought I would, given my deep suspicion about Nicholson Baker, and that’s saying quite a bit. I might recommend reading poets more than I’d recommend this novel, though. Try Mary Oliver and Louise Bogan and James Fenton first, and Jules Laforgue, why not.

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15 Responses to The Anthologist

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m kind of suspicious of Nicholson Baker too, and for the same reasons – and I ended up skimming the squinting paragraph – though that might also be because I was reading it too early in the morning!

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! Most of the book is like that, actually: rambly digressive stuff about poetry. It’s quite appealing if you’re fond of poetry (I am) and the narrator is a nice enough guy. But… well… I didn’t get any sense of connection out of it. I felt like Baker was doing it for himself. I could be wrong.

  2. Jenny says:

    I wasn’t familiar with Nicholson Baker before I read this novel, so I didn’t have any previous thoughts about him to bring with me into The Anthologist. I did disagree with some of the points he made, or at least I looked at them with a very jaundiced eye, but I thought at least they were interesting ways of looking at poetry. Stuff I hadn’t thought of before.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I disagreed with some of his points, too, but that’s okay; people are allowed to disagree about literature. Also, I had to get up out of bed where I was reading and fact-check him on unsalted butter, and he was dead wrong about it. But you are quite right about his interesting ways of looking at poetry, sometimes, and there were some very nice set pieces, too. And I always like it when a book pushes me to read someone new, and there was quite a bit of that.

      • Pykk says:

        Now I’m wondering. What did he say about unsalted butter?

      • Jenny says:

        He said that all unsalted butter is butter-flavored; that is, that it has “natural flavorings” in it that make it taste like butter. Mine doesn’t!

  3. Jeanne says:

    Sounds like a good book to flip through sometime when I’m feeling credulous.

    • Jenny says:

      This made me laugh right out loud, Jeanne! When are you ever feeling credulous? That is not among my top ten adjectives for you. But you might enjoy it quite a bit on the same level I did.

      • Jeanne says:

        What you get on the blog is necessarily considered thinking, but in fact my family considers me highly credulous. I was raised that way. Just ask Ron.

  4. This is on my TBR shelf, but from your review, I don’t think I’ll enjoy it not being a poetry expert. However I have read The everlasting story of Nory which was him writing as a nine-yr old girl – I seem to remember thinking it was quite clever, and I have the one about the box of matches which I still do want to read.

    • Jenny says:

      You don’t have to be a poetry expert to enjoy this book. On the contrary. I think people less expert in poetry might actually enjoy it more. And I have heard that The Mezzanine is great.

  5. Sarah C. says:

    I quite like Nicholson Baker (well, the non-porn stuff; that side of his oeuvre doesn’t appeal to me either), but I do like the digressive, look-into-someone’s-head-at-a-single-moment stuff. The Mezzanine is the one I think he’s most famous for in that regard, but I kind of liked The Anthologist a bit more. I was really rooting for the protagonist to get the dang piece written already, so at least there was something of a plot with narrative resolution, right? But the clever-clever thing is what probably separates Baker from the true greats of contemporary lit; I kind of think of him as second-tier, you know?

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’d agree (on this single sample!) that it was good, and sometimes not even very good, and definitely not great. But I did like the book, in the end, so there’s that, there’s solidly that.

  6. I actually loved this book. I ended up feeling very fond of the narrator and really rooting for him. I haven’t read anything else that Nicholson Baker wrote, and had no desire to – but this one charmed me.

    • Jenny says:

      It was charming, in places! I wanted him to finish his task and get back together with his girlfriend (some of the time; some of the time I was more rooting for her, to be honest.) And I liked some of his ideas about poetry, too. But the clever-clever was a bit overwhelming. I might try The Mezzanine and see how it goes.

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