The War Between Rhyme and Un-Rhyme – Nicholson Baker

“The Anthologist” by Nicholson Baker (2009) – 245 pages

    “I’m hoping that people will come away from the book and think poetry is wasteful and inefficient and there’s a lot of bad poetry.  On the other hand, I want them to see that there’s a kind of greatness to (poetry) that you can’t get anywhere else.”
                                                                             Nicholson Baker

I listened to “The Anthologist” on audiodisk during my long commutes to and from work.  “The Anthologist” is one book where listening is clearly superior to reading.  Nicholson Baker himself reads the book on the audiodisk, and it’s more of a performance than a reading. At times he recites poetry, at times he sings, and at all times he’s revealing his quirky amusing personality.  If it were a videodisk, Baker would probably be dancing.     

The fictional narrator in “The Anthologist” is Paul Chowder, a poet who is trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology called “Only Rhyme” but making little progress.  Early on, Chowder says, “My life is a lie.  My career is a joke.  I’m a study in failure.”  Yet within his rambling narration is one of the most fascinating personal talks on poetry I’ve ever come across.  Somehow he makes informal connections from the futurist philosophy of Marinetti to fascism to poetry that doesn’t rhyme – think Ezra Pound.  There are amusing and moving personal anecdotes of many twentieth century poets such as Louise Bogan, Theodore Roethke, James Fenton, Sara Teasdale, Mary Oliver, and Howard Moss.

Chowder does not have much use for the poetic form iambic pentameter, the idea of the five beat line.  He thinks this has led to a lot of bad poetry.  Chowder prefers the four beat line.  I’ve frequently tried to count beats in poetry lines with little success.  Chowder says that you must also count the rests.  I tried this out on the simple lines from “Madeleine” which are actually quoted in the book, and it worked perfectly.

    In the middle of the night
    Miss Clavell turned on her light
    And said, “Something is not right!”.

Each line is seven syllables and a rest, thus each line is four beats,   So I experienced my first ever triumph in counting poetry beats using Chowder’s method and these lines from a children’s book.

The fictional plot of “The Anthologist” is skimpy beyond all measure.  A few times, Chowder bemoans the fact that his girlfriend Roz has moved out.  He mentions his neighbor Nan a few times.  Other than that, there isn’t any fictional plot at all, beyond Chowder mowing his lawn once in a while.  But who cares, when you have a monologue this interesting and amusing?  Where else will you have a narrator compiling a list of “People I’m jealous of”?  I think the tent of fiction is big enough to contain a fine book like this.   

Nicholson Baker has said about his fiction, “It’s important to get the voice right.”  On this audiodisk Baker has done just that.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I am a fan of NB – I read A Book of Matches, which is an unusual book to say the least, and also Human Smoke – a controversial book about WW2. This looks worth seeking out but the audio sounds as though it may have the edge on the printed copy

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    • Hi Tom.
      I’m sure “The Anthologist” is good in print also; it’s just that on the audio it’s like a stage performance. I had previously read “Vox”. Baker is a nice change of pace from all the plot-orriented writers out there.

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  2. I feel a little cheated that I only read this one. It is a very good book on the page as well as the stage, though. I haven’t yet read another by Baker, but this one definitely makes me want to explore more of his work. And, like you, this was probably the best experience with analyzing poetry I have had. That does say something about me, but it says more about the book. It succeeds where others have failed.

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    • Hi Kerry,
      I like the way Baker doesn’t ‘over-sell’ poetry. It’s something that is there and something people do, and people do poetry in different ways, and some of them I like and some of them not so much. Reading ‘The Anthologiist’ has made me want to look for a good poetry anthology. .

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  3. Sounds interesting, must get a copy when Ive the spare cash!!!

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