Friday, June 24, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker


There is a book leaning on the shelf in my living room that I should have returned to the library nineteen years ago. It is a book of poetry, quotations and proverbs with a worn blue cover and inset gold lettering on the spine. The guilt I feel for depriving other library patrons is assuaged by the wonderful memories I associate with it. It was the book that dragged my sleepy teenage brain away from the dark basements of Stephen King and into the warm autumn light of Tennyson, Keats, Poe and Wordsworth. It started a flirtatious, arms-length affair with poetry that I still maintain today. I don't write it much any more, but I still love to read it. The good stuff can shift the axis of the earth. The bad stuff can give you mental heartburn.

The Anthologist introduces us to Paul Chowder, an aging and increasingly irrelevant poet who is struggling to write an introduction to his new anthology. Through Paul, Nicholson Baker takes us on a guided tour of his own relationship with rhyme, and what he reveals is a jewelry box stuffed with good verse. Paul Chowder claims that "good" poems all have a couple of things in common; they all have rhythmic four-beat lines and they all use small, simple words. He despairs the lost art of rhyming and rallies against the modern trend towards free verse. It is all very clever and funny and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for this art.

I will not be returning that library book any time soon but I will be lending this one out to anyone with more than a passing interest in poetry. Yes, for the record, I am a hypocrite. 

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