The dust cover of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist displays the words “A Novel” in very small type after the title. The small font seems appropriate because, although there is a definite narrative thread throughout the work, on the whole it reads much more like an essay as that form was originally conceived by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne: a leisurely, wandering exploration of a theme or idea. In this case, the focus is poetry, rhymed and unrhymed. Baker’s novel also resembles Montaigne’s essays in that Baker represents a mind in conversation with itself, a thinker who diagnoses and anatomizes his own mind as he goes. Although this approach is risky, the narrative voice is likable, despite being frustrating and self-absorbed at times. Over all, the voice is whimsical, witty, knowledgeable, and sympathetic, so reading the novel comes to seem like reading the journal of a very dear friend, a guilty pleasure.
Baker’s protagonist, Paul Chowder, is a middle-aged poet who is not writing. He has been commissioned, and received an advance, to put together an anthology of rhymed poetry (he himself writes free verse) and write an introduction. With much angst, he has managed to decide which poems to include, but he cannot bring himself to write the introduction. He lives on a farm that he has inherited, and he has set up his study in the loft of the barn, where he goes to struggle with his demons. His failure to write has led Roz, his live-in girlfriend of many years, to leave him in frustration, and it has also placed him on the brink of bankruptcy.
The action of the novel is mostly an account of Chowder moving from place to place on the farm, from barn to hayloft, from brook to stream, looking for his muse. He also makes a brief foray into playing badminton with a friendly neighbor, her lover, and her son, and he does some manual labor for the same neighbor to earn a bit of money. He cares for his dog Smacko and very occasionally sees his former lover. He does a reading in Cambridge. He goes to a poetry conference in Switzerland and gives a master class. The suspense in the novel is generated by the question of whether he will ever write his introduction.
The delight of reading The Anthologist comes from Chowder’s musings on poetryrhymed and unrhymed, metrical or notincluding rants on iambic pentameter (according to him, a French form not appropriate to English); discourses on the counting of beats, including rests; and thoughts on some of the greatest poems of the past and present, as well as some of the greatest poets from Horace, through Geoffrey Chaucer, to John Ashbery. To say that Chowder’s ideas about poetry are at times eccentric is to make an understatement, but they are also informative. For example, he has a revelation about the translation of Horace’s carpe diem as “seize the day.” According to Chowder (and, by extension, Baker), the proper translation is “pluck the day,” an insight that leads him to produce a page and a half of commentary on typos, mistranslations, and the true meaning of Horace’s poem, all of which is both elegant and edifying.
The title of Chowder’s anthology is Only Rhyme, an allusion to the novelist E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howards End (1910), “Only connect.” Chowder’s dilemma is that although he connects totally with poetry, there is nothing much else he is connecting with, try though he may. He sleeps in his bed accompanied only by piles of his favorite poetry collections, which are strewn between the sheets. He is utterly blocked in his own writing, spending days watching reruns of sitcoms such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and Friends. He decides that the sitcom is a new, underappreciated, and totally American art form.
Chowder is so distracted by his major lossesof his girlfriend and his ability to...
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