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Book Covers, Book Review, Poetry

Book Review: ‘The Anthologist’ by Nicholson Baker

I love it when I find something totally unexpected in a Charity shop.  I was drawn (as I always am) to the cover.  Already sporting drinks stains and with nothing fluffy, sparkling or pink, I Anthologist cover.jpgpicked it up and flicked to the opening page which says:

“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try 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.  All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you.  I’m going to divulge them.  What a juicy word that is, “divulge”.  Truth opening its petals.  Truth smells like Chinese food and sweat.”

What a blimmin’ fabulous opener!  And the second paragraph just cements what I’d already gleaned from the first – that this is going to be a fun, informative reading ride with somebody who digresses as much as I do and who has already alluded to Miranda with his own juicy word (hers being “moist”). So here’s the start of the second…

“What is poetry?  Poetry is prose in slow  motion.  Now, that isn’t true of rhymed poems.  It’s not true of Sir Walter Scott.  It’s not true of Longfellow, or Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Yeats.  Rhymed poems are different.But the kind of free-verse poems that most poets write now – the kind that I write – is slow-motion prose.”

Our hero is Paul Chowder.  At the start of the book his girlfriend, Roz, has just left him because he hasn’t finished (or even started) writing the over-40 page introduction he has been charged with writing for the anthology he himself has put together – of all his favourite poems.  So she’s fed up with his tardiness and sluggishness and refusal to get to the point and moved out.  Which he’s upset by.

It doesn’t put him off trying to woo her back, though:

“I called Roz and left a message asking her if she’d like to come by and help me shampoo the dog…”

He does all kinds of things to further (and reason) procrastination including clearing out his office to free his Chakra and cleanse his mind of clutter… and he also starts helping the neighbours with little tasks around their houses – all in the name of avoidance – which, if you’re also a writer/poet, you will entirely understand and empathise with and take Paul Chowder into your heart.

“Why do I, who can’t make a couplet worth a roasted peanut these days, want poetry to do what I can’t make it do?  Mary Oliver is my favorite poet at the moment, and she almost never rhymes.  W.S. Merwin’s The Vixen is one of my favorite books of poems, and it doesn’t rhyme.  Not only does The Vixen not rhyme, not only does it not scan, it doesn’t even capitalize or punctuate.”

And on he goes – taking us with him on his very personal journey through self-doubt, heartache and procrastination, whilst also giving us some wonderful insights into not only the writing of poetry but also into the real life, real worlds of the poetry Greats of all time.

I found myself jotting down names and titles of poems as I read this, and afterwards read the poems he’d mentioned, now knowing a little/a lot more about the poet’s life and what had prompted them to write these poems in the first place.

Even if I hadn’t recently taken an ‘Art of Poetry’ module with the OCA, I’m certain that ‘The Anthologist’ would still be a favourite read.  And I know I will return to it often to hear the lovely pearls of wisdom from somebody I felt such a warm affinity with. I miss Paul Chowder already.  I hope you will too.

10/10  The ordinary and yet tangled life of a disenchanted poet.  What’s not to love.

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About debsriccio

I read, I write, I tweet, I blog and I avoid housework whenever I can.

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