Review: The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker

I meant to sneak this post in under the wire for National Poetry Month, but April came to a rapid and surprising end before I was able to. Never mind. The Anthologist is a book for all seasons.

The Anthologist follows the slightly scattered thoughts of poet Paul Chowder about poetry and life as he struggles to produce an introduction to an anthology of poetry he’s editing. Historically I have not been a fan of books with thin plots, or books about alienated writers who have scared off their significant others by being impossible and now need to mope about it. Or of books that casually insult Ezra Pound (I know! I know! He was so insultable! But he was also a really good poet! “La Fraisne”!).

But Nicholson Baker reminds me strongly of Martin Millar, one of my absolute favorite writers in all the land. They share a sweet, straightforward, disarming narrative style that makes it impossible to dislike their characters. Even when I totally disagreed with Paul Chowder on the subject of women, or Ezra Pound (look, I like Ezra Pound), or iambic pentameter (I can see his point about the rest, but there isn’t always a rest), I still did really want him to get his introduction written, and convince Roz to come back to him again.

I also really liked when he said about Swinburne. I am a fan of Teh Swinburne (yes, that’s what I’m calling him now), even though I recognize that a lot of his poems are very silly. Paul Chowder says, basically, that Swinburne rhymed too many rhymes and broke the rhyming apparatus. That he rhymed so many things with so many other things, that the poetry world just said, Enough already with the rhymes! and produced T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound so that our ears could have a break. That explanation isn’t meant to be taken literally, I don’t think. It’s just charming.

In general, I really loved the way Paul Chowder talked about poetry. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way I was interested in his viewpoint, which was always engaging, and always worth having.

That’s all I have to say about that, I’m afraid, and it doesn’t do the book justice. I don’t know what else to say, except that if you find poetry a little intimidating, this may be an excellent book to de-intimidate you. And look, it must be charming if I don’t mind about the insults to Ezra Pound.

Other people who read it (gosh, I haven’t done this in ages):

Mumsy
Tales from the Reading Room
Fizzy Thoughts
Nathalie Foy
Book Hearth
A Work in Progress
Olduvai Reads
Shelf Life
Joy’s Blog
my cozy book nook

Tell me if I missed yours!

  • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I felt exactly the same. Any author who can hold my attention in a delighted way over iambic pentameters is a force for good, I reckon.

    • Quite right! I wish his other books were like this, but I read A Box of Matches last fall and didn’t like it nearly as much. I even forgot to review it.

  • Ela

    I love your explanation about Swinburne (there’s a fabulous portrait of him at the current ‘Cult of Beauty’ exhibition at the V&A Museum)! And I haven’t read enough Pound to be for or against him – what would you suggest is a good starting point?

    • Not my explanation, I would never have thought to explain it that way. I’d love to see his portrait, I actually have no idea what the guy looked like.

      Pound? Maybe try “La Fraisne”? He has a lot of poems that I don’t like, but he has some lovely ones too. “La Fraisne” is cool and creepy. “The Bath-Tub” always makes me smile.

  • I’m a poetry lover who loves to read about other opinions on poems and poets so this one sounds great! The little details you mention make my poetry taste buds water.

    • The book is wonderfully sweet as well as interesting about poetry. I hope you like it!

  • I have not been a reader of poetry in a very long time, but something about this book intrigues me and makes me want to seek it out. I don’t think I have read anything quite like this book, and it sounds intriguing for many reasons. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us!

    • I can easily see this book making you want to read poetry. It did me — Baker quotes small excerpts from a bunch of poems, and he also tells wonderful stories about poets’ lives. It made me want to seek out some of the people he talked about.

  • Jenny

    I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite a while. You continue to convince me I should.

    • Do! It’s good. 🙂

  • Is this a book that a lover, even a scholar, of poetry could like? Does he rehash the political stuff about Pound?

    • Ummmm, I don’t know. I have never been a scholar of poetry at all, and I only a few years ago started really liking it myself. But I think yes. It’s not set up as a primer of poetry or anything like that, and it’s quirky and jump-about-y, so it doesn’t feel like a lesson (which might be patronizing). He doesn’t really rehash the political stuff about Pound, no. He mentions it, but it’s not a huge thing.

  • Thanks for the link back! I know, I was totally rooting for him to win Roz back. And while I can’t imagine taking a long car trip with the guy, I’d be up for a game of badminton anytime.

  • I suspect I would love this one, but I keep forgetting about it. Thanks for the reminder!

    Everything you described about Swinburne – you like him even though many of his poems strike you as very silly, and the whole “rhyming til he couldn’t rhyme no more” thing – is pretty much how I feel about Baudelaire. I find it especially silly to have such neat, consistent rhymes when he’s writing about, like, decadent nests of existential decay.

  • Amy

    I don’t go in for much poetry but if it’s a good place to start I might consider it.

  • Wasn’t he tiresome about women? And yet charmingly tiresome? That is an amazing feat. I would run (as any sane woman would) from Paul Chowder like a burning building, but you’re right, he remained appealing. That chair he dragged around was priceless. It became a sort of recurring image, and turned the novel into a bit of a plum itself. I really enjoyed it.

    Nicholson Baker is as smart as I keep wanting Bill Bryson to be.

    It’s even been in my mind lately because I was trying to think of a good book to give my grandmother. I decided on The Anthologist because she has so much poetry memorized–which she enjoys reciting from at random–and she pretty much holds all Paul Chowder’s views on the subject. It’s fun to have a fictional character agree with you and make good arguments you can pretend you would have come up with yourself.

  • I’ve been thinking about reading this book since I first read about it a few years ago. Thanks to you I now need to bug my library about buying it. 🙂

  • I’m still horribly intimidated by poetry, despite all the poetical stuff I’ve crammed in my brain over the past year, so: duly noted.

  • Ela

    I just found a proof copy of ‘The Anthologist’ at my parents’ house when I was visiting last weekend and so had to pick it up and read it on the train home! I really enjoyed it – Chowder mentioned so many poets that I now have to read, like Sara Teasdale and James Fenton (even if he was very rude about Pound).

    My review will be coming on my blog later (probably much later, given my review backlog), but just wanted to thank you for letting me know about this.

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