THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25.00
By NEIL ELLIS ORTS
Some years ago, I was in the presence of two accomplished poets. I was at the beginning of my appreciation for poetry, so I listened carefully. One referenced a third, absent poet and said, “She writes in rhyme! No one writes in rhyme anymore!” I said nothing but thought: No wonder no one reads poetry anymore. The first thing the average person thinks of when they think of poetry, even in this postmodern age, is rhyme.
This conversation came to mind as I read Nicholson Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist. Baker’s narrator, Paul Chowder, passionately, painstakingly, humorously tells us “everything I know about poetry.”
What Chowder knows is that rhyme and a four-beat line is the natural form for poetry written in English, and will use everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Ludacris to prove it. He even shows how some poems have a rest (or a “BOOM!”), an implied fourth beat on an otherwise three-beat line.
While much humor comes from Chowder’s analysis (which is nonetheless compelling), more comes from his procrastination. He has compiled an anthology of poems entitled Only Rhyme. The book is at the publisher, all ready to go save Chowder’s introduction to the volume and he can’t quite manage to write it. The introduction, in fact, is ruining his life. The writer’s block is causing him financial hardship. It has cost him his long-term, live-in girlfriend, Roz. It is making him a little crazy.
Can he make his case for rhyming poetry, and keep the respect of his academic friends? Can he acknowledge the existence of very fine non-rhyming poems—which he prefers to call “plums”—without weakening his argument? And if he finishes his introduction, will Roz move back in with him?
That third question is really the plot of the novel. Chowder is nothing if not lovesick and brokenhearted over Roz. When he isn’t analyzing poetry, he is emotionally thirteen years old, trying to win his girl, either by impressing her—finishing the introduction—or by gaining her pity—when he seriously hurts his hand, he calls her to help him bandage it up.
Baker’s genius in constructing Chowder is the complexity of his feelings for both poetry and Roz. On the one hand, he is involved in an esoteric endeavor—poetry—that in another age might have won him celebrity status. (He wonders if someday TV scripts for Friends will be more closely studied than twentieth century poetry). On the other, he has to pursue a love he once understood to be the stabilizing influence on his life. In between, we see Chowder’s world in all it’s absurdity and brilliance.
Ultimately, The Anthologist is an erudite, quirky love story, subtly revealing the ways we compensate for the desires we can’t fulfill—and essential reading for everyone who thinks poetry should no longer rhyme.