Paul Chowder is a published poet, a former teacher of poetry, and now the editor of an anthology of poetry called “Only Rhyme” which awaits only his Introduction to be ready for printing. But he can’t seem to get it done. His girlfriend Roz has left him, and he is floundering about between cleaning his second floor “office”, sitting outside in his white plastic chair observing the little natural world of his yard, and ruminating about poetry.
Chowder may be the quintessential Nicholson Baker hero, and “The Anthologist” may be Baker’s best book since his wonderfully quirky first novel “The Mezzanine.” From the opening (“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry.”) to the close (“The summer’s over. It’s fall. Shadows on the windshield. Rest”), we are treated to Baker’s gifts of observation, connection, and broad erudition.
Searching for One Good Poem
Poor Chowder. Lord knows he is well-intentioned and capable. But as he says: “Here’s the thing. I am basically willing to do anything. I’m basically willing to do anything to come up with a really good poem. I want to do that. That’s my goal in life. And it hasn’t happened. I’ve waited patiently. Sometimes I’ve waited impatiently. Sometimes I’ve ‘striven.’ I’ve made some acceptable poems – poems that have been accepted in a literal sense. But not one single really good poem.” So he becomes an anthologist, which as he explains, takes some of the same skills of selection, order, length, and focus as those of a working poet…but which also needs an Introduction, which takes totally different skills. He struggles.
This “blocked” Introduction provides the friction that gives the novel its drive, at least to the extent that any Baker novel has drive. Chowder misses the company of Roz. “I’m not going to get all maudlin about why Roz moved on. She moved on, period. I know why. It’s because I didn’t write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was. And I didn’t walk the dog as much as I should have. And I got farty when we had Caesar salads. And I do miss her. Because she was so warm and so kind to me, and she taught me so many things. I squandered her good nature. I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t see that it was finite.” In subtle steps Baker takes us from the specific back-breaking “Introduction” straw to the more likely universal situation that really has brought Chowder to his lonely malaise.
Smacko and the Kitchen Mouse
Alone but for his flea-magnet dog Smacko and a kitchen mouse whose company he doesn’t mind if it weren’t for the daily droppings on the counter, Chowder has much to say about poetry – particularly poetry of rhyme and meter. Poetry is the heart of this novel, and the details of poets, poems, history, biography, and criticism are interspersed with Chowder’s story at just the pace and placement to make them interesting but not overbearing.
Frequently Chowder drops in metaphors that bring us an “ah-ha” and a smile: “What I’m doing when I’m writing poetry is I’m trying to make a little side salad. Just the right amount of sprouts on the top, maybe a chickpea or two. No bacon. Maybe a slice of egg. It doesn’t feel like writing at all.” Writing is what he needs to do for his Introduction; it’s linear, sequential, boring. “Here’s what a poem is. See this glass of water? This glass of water is an essay. Perfectly fine thing for it to be. A literary essay – a piece of ‘creative non-fiction.’ But dip a spoon in that glass of water and scoop some of it out and hold it over a hot fry pan so that a few drops fall and sizzle and quickly disappear. That’s a poem.”
Chowder is not all inertia. He goes blueberry picking with a friend and his girl friend and her friend on a sort of blind date, but “I just wasn’t going to call her up and ask her out…For one thing, she hadn’t liked me that much. Her first impression was not dazzlement, understandably. So I’d really have to huff and puff to pique her interest.” He helps his neighbor and her boyfriend and son install a pine plank floor. He does a reading in Cambridge, where “there were…twelve people, I think, maybe thirteen including several bookstore employees, who were kind people who didn’t dwell on the fact that their bookstore was going broke.” He flies to Switzerland to sit on a panel discussing rhyme at a global meeting of would-be poets. He makes Roz a bead necklace. He does this and that.
A Literary Ramble
Baker has a way of keeping his novels very human at the same time that he rambles on with all sorts of tangential facts and minutiae. In the case of “The Anthologist” the rambles are mostly on the nature and history of poetry. More than once I put this book aside to find and read some Swinburne that he mentions or listen to Elizabeth Bishop read “The Fish” on-line or look up James Fenton with whom I’m not familiar.
Baker brings poetry back to life. But Chowder is just a man, and he is lonely. His books and poems don’t fill the hole left when Roz leaves. Baker knows this and leaves Chowder with very human longing: “What if sometime Roz let me hold her breasts again? Wouldn’t that be incredible? Those soft familiar palm-loads of vulnerability – and I get to hold them? That’s simply insane. Inconceivable.”
Alas, in the end, it’s the incredible, insane, and inconceivable that we all want.