THE ANTHOLOGIST BY NICHOLSON BAKER: A HATRED OF POUND, A PLEA FOR THE FOUR-BEAT LINE

This rather lightweight novel, featuring almost no plot and a great deal of first-person discussion of poetic prosody, received mostly positive reviews in 2009.

Only Tom Deveson of the London Times savaged Baker’s latest as cutesy and trivial (and unfair to Pound—but this is the least of its sins).

David Orr, who praised the book, pointed out the New Yorker (and Paul Muldoon) got undue attention from Paul Chowder, the protagonist of the book, a poet and anthologist who assaults the reader with the minutiae of his drab life and his opinions of poetry.  Orr is right: Chowder does not seem like a real player in po-biz, hardly mentioning any magazines which publish poetry, save the New Yorker; Chowder seems only a witness from a certain learned distance, like the novelist Baker, himself.

I can almost imagine Garrison Keillor writing a book like this, though Keillor’s protagonist wouldn’t be quite so nerdy and reclusive.  Still, there would be that fondness for popular poetry, that slightly self-effacing humor.  It’s the way other kinds of writers who like poetry talk about poetry: fondly yet ruefully, eclectically yet blithely, sentimental yet wisecracking.

Nicholson Baker is charming in the sort of way he always is, if you like that sort of thing; I did not find his digressions very interesting; well, more accurately, I didn’t find any skillful blending of the story with the opinions of poetry, and as a true poetry lover, I kept skipping over the little fictional interludes (drab) to hear the opinions of poetry (somewhat less drab).  

At one point, poetry is described as a kind of rhythmic sobbing.  Well, no, but a nice try.

Is this a novel of ideas?  I suppose not, since none of the reviews discussed the book’s ideas.  Perhaps this says more about the book reviewing industry than anything else: “Charming book!  Loved it!  Profound!  But it will make you laugh, too, outloud, even!  Have no fear, reader!  Buy this book!”  Simon Schama writing in the London Financial Times was not quite this bad—but almost.

The only idea in the book, for me, worth mentioning:  Traditional ballad meter, with 4 beats per line, is the true music of English poetry despite the fact that snobby scholars insist it belongs to iambic pentameter (5 beats per line).

Baker’s prosodic discussions are extremely simple—too simple by half.   His gallant failures did not make it necessary to chase down my copy of Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” since Baker’s formulae caused me to merely smile at their simplicity; I felt no need to refute them.

Poe appears in The Anthologist only as one of numerous, unconnected incidents: Paul Chowder pictures himself meeting Poe in a laundromat.  A dull meeting, remarkable for having no relevance to anything at all.

I wonder if Baker knows that Rufus Griswold, Poe’s famous nemesis, was the most important anthologist of his time, producing a best-seller not only with his Poets and Poetry of America anthology, but with his Female Poets of America anthology—which included women involved in the lives of these two literary men in all sorts of interesting ways.

Oh, wait, forgotReal life.

Baker writes…uh, what is it called… fiction.

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2 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    August 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I forgot Baker wrote this book.

    Notice, though, how the British political analyst, David Pryce-Jones, writing for the conservative magazine “Commentary,” rushes to the defense of Churchill. No dissent is allowed. Not one tiny weakness in the Churchill facade can be uttered. Baker may be partly right, but in the climate of political debate which is entirely ‘either-or,’ no learning occurs; it is merely the trench warfare of WW I in the mind. This is the post-Vietnam legacy. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of partisan fanaticism, a tool of Empires everywhere. David Pryce-Jones is obviously a proud little child of one of the world’s greatest Empires, which, fortunately, or unfortunately, speaks English.


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