After reading a review of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, I got the impression that the narrator, Paul Chowder, was a bit pathetic. Wrong. Well, not exactly wrong. But his pathetic qualities are entirely delightful. The narrative is lively, humorous and drowning in poetry. Paul’s obsession with poetry is similar to Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. But while Rob was a professional appreciator, Paul is a poet himself.
By the time the reader is introduced to Paul he has reached his fifties and is more of a struggling poet than a successful one. His current project is writing an introduction to his anthology Only Rhyme. After patient weeks of supporting him, his girlfriend Roz has finally left. He had avoided the daunting task of writing his introduction to his anthology by singing in his office, reorganizing and buying more books of poetry than he can afford.
Baker’s protagonist would be entirely pathetic if it weren’t for his extravagant adoration of poetry and language. The book is both an unraveling of Paul’s current distress and his fervent explanation of bits poems and sketches of the lives of his favorite poets.
Paul passes on reasonable bits of advice amidst his diatribes of loneliness and mild self-loathing. He suggests reading your poems aloud in different accents, and paying attention to the stories you hear every day; they just might wend themselves into a poem. Paul walks the reader through the rhythm of a poem with precision, concluding a line with his own triumphant BOOM to emphasize where the aural rest exists. His declarations about his circumstances are often acute and he uses words like “fulth” and “gimbleflap” with ease. I couldn’t help giggling. The exuberant nature of Paul’s approach to poetry would serve in many college introductory courses. (I was fortunate enough to have a more successful and socially adjusted version of Paul Chowder.)
The current that carries the book to its conclusion bears almost no relation to Paul’s love affair with Roz. There are few moments in the text when his preoccupation with his girlfriend rises above mildly dull. She seems very nice and entirely justified in her decision to leave her crumbling poet until he gets back on his feet. She isn’t and wasn’t a must. Paul addresses the necessity of suffering for a poet to be truly successful and admits that comparatively, he has nothing to complain about.
Paul’s meticulous untangling of rhyme, and his enduring battle against the iambic pentameter, burst with giddiness. He gets his perks from poetry and so does the reader. The title of the book is something of a misnomer because although part of Paul’s difficulty stems from the introduction he is attempting to write, his aim remains the poetry itself, not its collection. He shows the reader how a poem often turns on a single stanza. And in a funny moment in the text realizes that it is in fact a single line that mesmerizes him and finally a single word. The miracle is that the reader understands him and in fact agrees.
All passionate reader will identify with Paul’s anecdotes even if poetry never makes it on their reading lists. Baker gets at the pleasures, surprises and lasting effects that words have when strung together properly. Paul enunciates both sizzling criticisms and melting words of awe. His entrancement with his subject is engaging if not rousing. Paul’s intimate knowledge of his favorite poets awakens the reader’s interest in them and inspires one to search again for a half forgotten line in order to pin down why exactly that phrase demanded particular attention.