“Let’s have a look at this poem,” says speaker Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker’s new book.
Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space… The words are making room, they’re saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here, the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who’s going to eat razor blades… So stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the white playing field of Eton.
In The Anthologist, Paul is a poet struggling to write a 40-page introduction to his edited anthology of poems, “Only Rhyme.” He has so much to say on the subject that he can’t hardly begin, and as a result of his writer’s block his frustrated girlfriend, his moral and financial support for eight years, leaves him. Instead of writing the introduction like he’s supposed to, he talks to you, imparting his wisdom on English verse and observations of inchworms and subtle appeals to Roz to get her to come back to him.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done so much underlining and scrawled so much personal marginalia in a book. This is partly because many of the books I’ve read lately weren’t mine, but mostly because I can’t help but talk back to The Anthologist.
On the subject of poetry Paul is both inviting and strongly opinionated. He despises Ezra Pound, adores Sara Teasdale, ridicules the Beats, defends rhyme, and hocks a couple bitter loogies toward Billy Collins. (That last one for me is not okay)
Here’s where I was sold, though: Paul recalls the first poem he’d ever heard, a pair of lines by Edward Lear his mother used to read to him: “Plumpskin, Ploshkin, pelican jill./We think so then, we thought so still.” His thoughts:
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.
H.L. Mencken said that a poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child. That’s a good start at describing Paul. The thing is, he, like the rest of the book, is cute but not overly quirky, sage but not pretentious, and honest. This is a light, deceptively simple book that has this sublime balancing act going on.
Not a perfect one, sure. Sometimes the lecture drags too long; sometimes he takes uninteresting departures from it—all things eventually forgivable in a lightweight 250 pages.
I can’t decide whether it reads more like Bill Bryson with its exuberant informativeness or Donald Miller with the speaker’s underdog confessional. I’ll just say that if you’re fond of either of those authors, The Anthologist ought to grab you right quick. But really, anyone who’d like to experience a spike in his/her poetry appreciation would do well to read it.