The Anthologist

The writer’s block of a poet becomes the excuse for Nicholson Baker’s daft, brilliant, hilarious novel.

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It’s not every writer who can change the way you think, but Nicholson Baker has made a career of making us sit up and take notice of things we often overlook. He forever altered our perception of shoelaces in his first book, “The Mezzanine” (1988), which many have, up to now, regarded as his best. It details a man’s thoughts as he rides an escalator after buying shoelaces on his lunch hour.

More recently, Baker sounded the alarm on our culture’s disappearing archives of old books and newspapers in his 2001 National Book Critics Circle-award winner, “Double Fold.”

Baker alienated some readers with the unpleasant obsessives who populated his novels “The Fermata” (1994) and “Checkpoint (2004)”; and with his last book, “Human Smoke,” an unorthodox, questionable history of World War II. But he deserves to win them back with The Anthologist, his eighth book of fiction (and 12th book overall), which may well change the way you look at poetry – and the way you rank his work.

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“The Anthologist” is a corker, a brilliant, hilarious, utterly eccentric paean to rhyme and meter narrated by a poet of minor renown named Paul Chowder who’s grappling with writer’s block as he faces a deadline for an introduction to an anthology of poetry he’s selected called “Only Rhyme.” He’s accident-prone and has credit-card debt and no health insurance (“Death is my health insurance”). Worse, his girlfriend, Roz, has given up on him and moved out of his Portsmouth, N.H., home after eight years. He’s desperate to win her back.

Voice is everything in first-person confessionals, and Paul Chowder’s is a hoot. By his own admission, he’s not normal, though he’s got enough self-perspective to note, “I mean, if you stand back from my life just a little – maybe 35 yards – I am a completely conventional person. I drive mostly within the fog lines. My life is seldom in crisis.”

Baker has always wielded language – and his enviable vocabulary – like a precision tool. Having a poet narrator enables him to let loose with unusual metaphors and similes at every turn. Chowder knows poetry backward and forward, and he’s got strong opinions, including a penchant for love poems and rhyme.

Noting the prevalence of depression among poets, he claims they are “our designated grievers.... All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It’s like chain-smoking – you light one line with the glowing ember of the last.”

Regardless of poets’ sadness, Chowder thinks that “There are too many poems about death,” which he feels is “a mistake of emphasis.” Why? Because “Death is really a small part of life, and it’s not the part you want to concentrate on, because life is life and it’s full of untold particulars. For example, take my briefcase. Is there anything about death in my briefcase?”

Emphasis is of prime importance when it comes to meter, the battlefield onto which Baker sends Chowder to do hand-to-hand combat. He hates the dominance of iambic pentameter. Most poetry, he insists, is actually four beats – although the fourth is often a rest. To prove this, he scans everything from Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” to Swinburne, Dryden, Elizabeth Bishop, and hip-hop, which he calls our light verse, commenting hilariously at one point, “Are you with me? I feel like I’m making an exercise video.”

The ways of avoiding work are infinite, and it’s an art that Baker has Chowder take to delightful new heights. He mows his lawn and strings a beaded necklace for Roz (but then wonders whether it would be a greater gift not to give it to her so she won’t have to “occupy her mind with my obvious wish to woo her back”). He cleans out his barn office, tracks the progress of a mouse in his kitchen, helps a neighbor lay a floor, and fantasizes about a weekly podcast called Chowder’s Bowl of Poetry. He gives a reading in Cambridge and attends a conference in Switzerland. But mostly, he expostulates on poetry and on poets’ often grim lives in a way that will engage even resolute prose-only readers.

Along the way, there are some terrific images (“the overboiled potato of the moon”); some fun wordplay (“Love means nothing in tennis, as you know. Frost said that free verse was like playing tennis without a net. Lawn Tennyson.”); and even a few excellent writing tips (Write about the very best moment of your day). It all adds up to a passionate, daft, winning discourse on why not just poetry but personality and good writing matter.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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