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October 16, 2009

Poetry Friday--The Anthologist

The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is a NOVEL by Nicolson Baker. So where's the Poetry Friday tie-in? The book's main character, Paul Chowder, is a minor poet (in his own words, "I'm a study in failure.") whose life in entangled in Poetry.

I have to say, The Anthologist is one of the strangest books I have ever read--and I like it. Sadly, I don't believe it has broad appeal. I don't think I'll be able to recommend a book about a poet, even if I do it with enthusiasm. People are going to look at me like I have three heads. The audience for it just isn't there, at least not in my library. But, the fact that you're reading this Poetry Friday post, obviously means you have an interest in poetry and poets!

Baker's character has a project his editor is expecting him to complete. It remains undone. Paul must write an introduction to his anthology of poetry. The poems have been chosen, yet he avoids writing the introduction. Instead he spends his time hiding away in his barn and telling the reader bits and pieces about poetry and poets--exactly the thing you'd expect to find in an introduction. He just doesn't write it.

Paul puts off the writing for so long, that frustrated by his inactivity, his girlfriend, Roz, walks out on him. Paul misses her terribly and in between telling the reader about rhyme and meter and imagined meetings with poets, he tries to get Roz to return (often by having stupid accidents that require her assistance).

Will Paul get the damned thing written? Will he get Roz back? You don't expect me to tell, do you?

The amazing thing about The Anthologist is that Paul's explanation of the mechanics of poetry is often quite enlightening and rather amusing. Here's an example:
There are two kinds of enjambment. There's regular enjambment, which is part of traditional poetry and is almost always a bad idea, but especially in sonnets--and then there's what's known as ultra-extreme enjambment. Ultra-extreme enjambment comes standard in free verse because free verse is, as we know, merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly. So you can break the line anywhere you want. In fact you want to

                  break against any
                  moments of natural

                  pause, not with
                  them, to keep

everyone on their toes and off balance...
I also like the little contemporary cultural references Baker throws in to show us that Paul isn't an terminally insufferable poetry snob.
I've got Photoshop for Dummies, and I learned a lot from it. The dummies' day may be passing, though. Too much yellow all over Barnes & Noble.
You've got to love a character who likes dummies books, ZZ Top, Project Runway, and Sara Teasdale. Well, at least I do!

I'd recommend you give The Anthologist a try. You'll either love it or hate it, but I doubt you'll be neutral.

For a Poetry Foundation interview with Nicholson Baker, click here.

In case you were wondering why there is a plum on the cover of The Anthologist, it's because Paul refers to nonrhyming poems as plums!

Please visit my friend Laura Salas for the Poetry Friday Round-Up.


  1. Oh I'm glad to see some comments on this book from another poet. I've got it on my TBR list and think I am moving it up. Thanks!

  2. Great review, Diane. I'm intrigued. I'm putting this on reserve at the library--though I have to say a pet peeve of mine is characters who don't take action to solve whatever the problem is...so I'm not sure if this guy will piss me off or not:>) But I'm game to give it a try. Love the excerpts.

  3. P.S. I just went to put it on reserve at my library system, and they have 10 copies and 68 requests for it! So people are lined up waiting. Of course, this is the Twin Cities, and we are overrun with poets, but still...must be getting some good buzz...

  4. Laura said, "a pet peeve of mine is characters who don't take action to solve whatever the problem is." Well, I'm not sure what you'll think of the ending. It came suddenly and that's all I'll say about that. Susan and Laura, let me know what you think of it after you've read it.