Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Paul Chowder is the editor of a new poetry anthology called Only Rhyme, and things are looking good. The poems have been selected. The publication date is looming. The cover art is finished, as is the catalogue copy, which boldly declares that Chowder’s introduction to the volume “locates rhyming poetry in its historical context and reawakens our sense of the fructifying limitlessness of traditional forms.”

There’s only one problem: he hasn’t written it yet.

See, Chowder has writer’s block—or at least a near-fatal case of procrastination. And yet that’s the least of his worries. His long-time girlfriend has just walked out on him, and he also has this nagging fear that he’s a no-talent hack of a poet himself.

Fortunately, Chowder is also the hero of a Nicholson Baker novel, which means that all of his innermost thoughts and worries are on display in the Maine-based writer’s trademark microscopic style. No detail is too mundane for Baker to document and breathe thrilling new life into. So when Chowder announces his plan to tell the reader everything he knows about poetry in order to get his creative juices flowing, rest assured that he’s also going to provide detailed digressions on everything from Meals on Wheels to the various noises he can hear from the converted barn that is his office. (“Don’t chirp at me, ye birdies!” he exclaims. “I’ve had enough of that kind of chirpage.”)

The trouble with Baker’s style is that, though peerless, its fuel is inescapably finite. After all, there are only so many objects and thoughts that can hold up under such minute dissection, and Baker has been at it for two full decades. The Anthologist seems to sense this, too, letting the literary pointillism—as well as the proper story, which for a while is slow going—take something of a back seat to Chowder’s meditations on poetry and the inevitably tortured souls who produce it.

But don’t worry. Even if you don’t like poetry, or haven’t read it in years, Chowder is a lovable, self-effacing dope of a tour guide, one who’s able to poke holes in the gospel of iambic pentameter without putting everyone to sleep. More than that, he’s passionate. Passionate enough to make you want to track down volumes by Chowder-approved poets like Sara Teasdale and Elizabeth Bishop—not to mention other books by Nicholson Baker.

Simon & Schuster, 256 pp, $32.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, November 26, 2009)

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