A few weeks ago my Dad told me that one of my Hanukkah presents was going to be a book, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He had heard a review about it on NPR, it was published recently and according to him it couldn’t be categorized within any genre. This intrigued me. A lot. And he didn’t give me any further details than those, so I started poking around sites that outlined newly released books. This led to my discovery of many more books that I’d like to read, but no book without a genre. Oh, another clue that I got was that it was about poetry.
When I ripped through the wrapping paper a few days ago, I unearthed The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, and now that I’ve finished the book I understand what he meant about its lack of a traditional genre. The book is about a man named Paul Chowder who is in the midst of writing the introduction for an anthology called, Only Rhyme, an impending divorce with his wife, and a mild case of ADD.
You know those speeches that people write about not being able to write speeches? When they think they’re so clever that they tricked the audience into thinking they, the speaker, have stepped onto the podium, entirely unprepared? They describe their thought process, the way they chewed four or five pens to smithereens, and paced around their living room for hours, but still no speech. And then at the end of this confession… Surprise! That was the speech. Well that’s sort of how the book reads. At the end, when Chowder finally finishes the introduction, he says it is about 230 pages long. Guess how many pages the book has.
So I guess the genre would be fictional anthology introduction, or something along those lines. Nonetheless, it was very enjoyable. Baker writes in a manner of free association, and seems to capture the very essence of procrastination. The only task that Chowder needs to complete is to write the introduction to the anthology, so naturally he goes to the barn (his preferred writing location), thinks about poetry, thinks about poets, thinks of ways to win his wife back, calls his wife (who has moved out of the house), buys a tablecloth to hang on the clothesline outside of his house to impress his wife if she happens to drive by the house, thinks about rhyme, helps his neighbor with home maintenance, and so on. So the basic premise of the book is writer’s block, paired with marital discontent.
Chowder often talks about his failed career as a poet, but he does not provide us with any of his poetry beyond a few very, very terrible lines near the end of the novel: “I walked upstairs behind her/Staring at her stitched seams/normally she wore black pants/but it was the last day of the year/that she could wear the white ones/so she did.” This poem snippet is followed by “Haaaaahhhh! I’m going to oxygenate myself. Haaaaaaahhhh!” His most successful poems are what he calls “flying spoon poems,” and I was expecting these to be explained in more detail before the end of the book, but alas he only presents those three words. Hmm, flying cutlery- not really sure what to make of that. But he seems to have led a semi-successful life, this Paul Chowder. He has been published by The New Yorker (the use of this magazine is criticized by a book critic from the New York Times, since it is very unlikely for a poet to get published in this periodical, and many other notable and more realistic magazines are not touched upon), has participated in many poetry readings, and is able to talk about poetry in a very non-pretentious manner.
Baker’s language is quite poetic and there are countless gems of lines. Take “poetry is a refinement of sobbing” or “God I wish I was a canoe. Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree” or “Today the clouds have sprayed on the sky with a number 63 narrow-gauge titanium sprayer tip.” He is a large supporter of rhyme and describes meter as a sort of waltz in which the reader engages. Throughout the novel, there are sprinkles of staff music, to which lines of poetry are assigned. Since I can read music, these were helpful in terms of visualizing the rhythm that Chowder talked about in the book’s prose, but it was difficult for me to hear the different notes. It is clear that both Chowder and Baker are well-read in the realm of poetry, since they rattle off the names of poets with ease, and talk about them the way one would talk about an old friend or colleague. He dislikes Eliot and Pound, Merwin is his idol, and he thinks Ashbury’s work sounds as if it is “written by a cleverly programmed random-phrase generator.” The poets are described as real people, disturbed people, and idiosyncratic people, not unlike Chowder.
If you are all interested in poetry, or about learning more about poetry, or just interested in reading something different and without a distinct genre, I would certainly recommend this book. Baker has taken the concept of poetry and makes it less abstract, more accessible. After all, “Rhyming is the genius’ version of the crossword puzzle-when it’s good. When it’s bad it’s intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented. But when it’s good, it’s great.”