The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
In Nicholson Baker’s fantastic The Anthologist, Paul Chowder, a minor published poet of free verse, struggles through writer’s block, purposelessness, and loneliness to write the introduction to the anthology Only Rhyme. This task debilitates the man as he magnifies its importance. “My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure,” he asserts. He avoids writing as he shops, frets, and reads. This is the writing life for many. I am reminded of Daniel Clowes’s Ice Haven in which Mr. Wilder intends to “begin a schedule of focused and lucid daily writing” and instead cleans the birdbath, clips the hedges, watches television, and worries all day. For all his idling, Paul Chowder is no poseur; he is sensitive, discerning, and passionate about poetry.
Nicholson Baker has created a fascinating psychology of the writer and a history of poetry told in direct address by a fictional character to the reader, “the casual reader of poems,” Chowder assumes. Chowder enchants the reader with his prodigious knowledge of language and its best practitioners and their dramatic lives. While a monomaniac, he is also a contrary man. He is writing about the importance of rhyme, but he writes in free verse because he cannot rhyme. The familiar suggestion “it doesn’t have to rhyme” is a veiled injunction, a manacle of freedom, Chowder says. He charts the history, revolutions and reactions in free verse, rhyming, and meter but ultimately he thinks that poetry that doesn’t rhyme is just “prose in slow motion.”
Chowder is convinced that great poets suffer in austerity and destructive excess and yet he endeavors to improve his (mid-life and middle class) self with beading, badminton and chin-ups. Will such sport fortify him against angst or dilute and soften his creative powers? Does he imagine that our celebrated poets did not attempt to mend their pain as he does? He rails against antidepressants and puts forth the familiar argument that great artists are tormented; comfort tempers the intensity that art demands and if Prozac had been available earlier our poetic history would be altered for the worse.
The easy life produces mediocrity and complacency; the privileged life ensures diversion and leisure. Today we are invited to be perpetual busy; the clouds of distraction roll by, obscuring our clarity and dedication. Perhaps lawnmowers and iTunes prevent today’s poets from the commitment that hardscrabble living can demand. Yet, while pain informs and deepens the poetic mind it also inhibits production. Chowder says, “Poets are our designated grievers, and if they weren’t allowed to be sad, we’d have none of the great moments of Auden.” While Chowder is not marginalized and impoverished, he does not recognize that his own dysthymia -- while slight compared to the violence, penury, addiction, and suicide of the old greats -- hinders his work. He thinks, “When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.”
Paul Chowder’s writer’s block issues from the anxiety of fantasy, the guilt and narcissism of writing in the poetic tradition. His love and knowledge of Sara Teasdale, Louise Bogan, Mina Loy, Roethke, Auden, and many other poets creates insecurities and complicates his own writing. For all his claims of suburban banality he is depressive, reclusive, and obsessive, compulsively purchasing books he cannot afford and then sleeping with them.
He is an unreliable narrator in the sense that we know him only through his own neurotic and self-denigrating perspective. He says he is a terrible teacher, that he hates the dishonesty of propping up bad fledgling poets, and yet throughout the novel he charms and edifies the reader with his fervent teachings on rhyme, free verse, meter, iambic pentameter, and the importance of the four beat line to poem and song. The introduction Chowder resists writing is encapsulated in the novel’s rendering of his thoughts and conversations. He knows what he should write, but he cannot get the words onto the page. His inability to complete the introduction has alienated his editor who harangues him and his girlfriend who left him in frustration.
For a book that is an extended lecture about the poets, there is suspense. Will Paul finally sit down and write the introduction? The book rushes to its epiphany, but it is a good one, a sweet, reassuring, and bracing thing. And who can explain or understand an epiphany? We learn that the destructiveness of ambition infects even poetry. Chowder wonders what would happen if he just let go and stopped competing with ghosts. The Anthologist is a revelation when critics prophesy the death of printed literature and the usurpation of the digital. Maybe it’s a eulogy but it’s all we have.
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster