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The Anthologist: A Novel Hardcover – September 8, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In Baker's lovely 10th novel, readers are introduced to Paul Chowder, a study in failure, at a very dark time in his life. He has lost the two things that he values most: his girlfriend, Roz, and his ability to write. The looming introduction to an anthology of poems he owes a friend, credit card debt and frequent finger injuries aren't helping either. Chowder narrates in a professorial and often very funny stream of consciousness as he relates his woes and shares his knowledge of poetry, and though a desire to learn about verse will certainly make the novel more accessible and interesting, it isn't a prerequisite to enjoying it. Chowder's interest in poetry extends beyond meter and enjambment; alongside discussions of craft, he explores the often sordid lives of poets (Poe, Tennyson and Rothke are just some of the poets who figuratively and literally haunt Chowder). And when he isn't missing Roz or waxing on poetics, he busies himself with a slow and strangely compelling attempt at cleaning up his office. Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope. (Sept.)
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From The New Yorker
Paul Chowder is a free-verse poet of some repute who has compiled an anthology titled “Only Rhyme” but can’t manage to bang out the introduction. His struggle has sent his girlfriend, Roz, packing, and we can see why he’s no fun to live with. On the page, though, he’s an erudite, unpretentious, and often hilarious companion who mentions Ludacris in the same line as Kipling, and who compares anthologists to “that blond bitch-goddess on ‘Project Runway.’ ” While Paul’s peregrinations, which recall Baker’s “U and I” but with poetry on the pedestal instead of Updike, are a textbook case of avoidance, they are also an earnest exploration of poetic rhythm and what it has to do with baby talk, music, crossword puzzles—and his longing for Roz. “Only Rhyme” began with Paul’s impulse to collect, but it ends up meaning “Only connect.”
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Top Customer Reviews
What makes this novel so wonderful is the information it provides about poetry and poets. Paul Chowder not only provides lesson upon lesson about what makes poetry good, but he also walks hand in hand with the poets who create the poems. We visit with most of the poets who have left their mark on our civilization.
Paul thinks his own poetry is mediocre and forgettable. He views poetry as a young man's art, much like mathematics. Paul is nearing 60. He once taught college but quit his job in a huff and they will not rehire him. He spends his days in his barn trying to motivate himself to write the introduction to his anthology of rhyming poets. He also tries to come up with reasons to call or visit Roz, attempting to rekindle their relationship.
This book is different from any other I've read. It is a novel disguised as a text. Or is it a text disguised as a novel? Regardless of what it is, it is a great read that I heartily recommend.
Firstly, I like Paul Chowder himself. His semi-stream of consciousness monologue about poems and plums (poems that don't rhyme - like the ones Paul writes), his feelings of ambivalence about modern poetry and the poetry culture, his sadness and hurt over the loss of Roz, his live-in girlfriend for the past nine years, and his ironic, self-effacing and (what seems genuinely) honest views of himself. He's not self-absorbed, as one reviewer I read suggested; he's just alone and lonely and fumbling around, trying to plan his next move at an emotional crossroads.
He's about my age (early 50's), I guess, and a somewhat successful poet (three published collections, past winner of a Guggenheim), but nevertheless struggling financially. He can't teach to sustain himself, because teaching makes him a professional liar - telling all those young students that their attempts at poetry are worth reading is simply lying. But he has a lot to teach, and he does so charmingly from start to finish as he rehearses in his mind the themes of the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poems he has compiled called "Only Rhyme". He starts by saying he's going to tell us everything he knows about poetry, and though I doubt that he really does accomplish that, he does tell us a lot.
He tells us of his admiration for the great rhyming poets, and about his disillusionment when his fourth-grade teacher encourages the class to write in free verse: "It doesn't have to rhyme!" He tells us that the controversy over the importance of rhyming in poetry goes back 500 years. He acknowledges that free verse has given many more people the freedom to try their hand at poetry (natural rhymers are rare) and that his own career started with that schoolteacher - his own poems don't rhyme, they're plums. He tells us his strongly held views on meter: the natural English language meter is the four-beat line, the ballad stanza, root of great poetry and pop music. He declaims against the lauded status of the (imported from French) iambic pentameter: it's not five beats to a line he insists, it's six when you include the all important end-of-line rest; the rhythm is really a three-beat count, not six beats, like a waltz; the word iamb is itself not iambic. ("The real rhythm of poetry is a strolling rhythm. Or a dancing rhythm. A gavotte, a minuet, a waltz.") As if to emphasize the importance of rhythm, Paul is always setting famous verse to his own tunes. He warns of the dangers of "enjambment", especially in its "ultra-extreme" form. And he tells us countless anecdotes and bits of gossip about the whole population of nineteenth and twentieth century poets.
I like the fact that through it all, Paul takes the reader on quite an entertaining and informative tour and reviews his thoughts on poets and poetry, on rhyme and meter, thoroughly enough to allow him at long last to spill out his anthology introduction in a whirlwind three days - but instead of the targeted forty pages, the introduction weighs in at two hundred thirty-nine (four pages short of the length of this book!). It will need some cutting, but this book doesn't - I like all two hundred and forty-three pages.
It's not clear how much of what Paul Chowder tells us reflects Baker's own views - Paul is the narrator of a novel after all. But his nostalgia for rhyming poetry (he "always secretly want[s] it to rhyme" when he comes across a new poem in a magazine, journal or anthology, "don't you?"), sensible as it seems to philistine me, is a bit too heretical: even when lamenting the unfashionableness of rhyming, he takes careful pains to acknowledge the greatness of modern poetry and many (non-rhyming) modern poets, even Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom he deplores.
Paul starts by saying that "poetry is prose in slow motion". He notes that in poetry there is no distinction between fiction and non-fiction. And he avers "poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing." True, true and true. And by these standards, this wonderful book should be thought of prose-poetry. How's this for slow motion prose:
"Another inchworm fell on my pant leg. They germinate in quantity somewhere up in the box elder. It was still for a moment, recovering from the fall, and then its head went up and it began looping, groping for something to climb onto. It looked comfortably full of metamorphosive juices - full of the short happiness of being alive."
As mentioned, it is always unclear whether the views on poetry that Paul expresses are "nonfiction" in the sense of revealing the author's own views. And the narrative is nothing if not a controlled sob over Paul's career to-date, his poetry, his future ("Poetry is a young man's job."), and his loss of Roz. Eventually, the sobs burst out as Paul delivers a master class at the "Global Word Congress" (a conclave of "masses" of poets) in Switzerland. He even ironically throws in a bit of iambic pentameter in the first line of a chapter following the one in which he presents his unorthodox disquisition on the classic meter: "A freakish mist lies over the land. [rest]"
And like a poem, this novel demands to be read a second time - which I did immediately, for a better understanding and for the pleasure.
There's not much narrative tension here, not much in the way of building action, climax, resolution and denouement. "Oh plot developments. Plot developments, how badly we need you and yet how much we flee from your clanking boxcars. I don't want to ride that train. I just want to sit and sing to myself." But as Paul packs up his collection of books (anthologies) and pines for his lost Roz (whose breasts, like poetry, "don't have to rhyme, but [...] do."), he draws the reader into sympathy with his situation, with his reflections on the past and present of poetry, and (for me at least) with his optimism about its rhyming future:
"And I'm sure there will be a genuine adept who strides into our midst in five or ten years. The way Frost did. Sat up in the middle of that spring pool, with the weeds and the bugs all over him. He found the water that nobody knew was there. And that will happen again. All the dry rivulets will flow. And everyone will understand that new things were possible all along."
There's a lot to like here, and it makes me want to know more of Baker's work. But before I do that, there are a lot of poets and a lot of poetry I need to catch up with.