this is not a review: the anthologist, by nicholson baker


I’ve been reading things recently about not writing as a tool for better writing, which, to me, makes perfect sense given that I believe procrastination (when handled with care) has a valuable (necessary) place in a writerly toolbox. Walks, cups of tea, headstands in the garden, rarely fail to loosen a brain (and a loose brain is a thing of envy indeed).

It’s no wonder then that I so completely enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist where procrastination is the art form.

The narrator, poet Paul Chowder, has been asked to write the introduction to a poetry anthology and for 243 pages he lets us in on every distraction and digression that flits through his head as he avoids doing so.

Or so it appears. In fact, writing the anthology is exactly what he’s doing for 243 pages. The breakup of his relationship, badminton games next door, the comings and goings of a kitchen mouse, are merely forms of life he notices from another plane where he lives and breathes beats and rhyme and the mathematical precision of rhythm. Where everything is light and shadow. Pauses. Enjambment.

What the narrator is actually doing is tearing open the whole world of poetry as he feels it, and staring it down; this takes time. He doesn’t do it on purpose, but still it requires the kind of courage that allows you to stand back from a project, do nothing, all the while hoping to god you’ll do it in exactly the right way for exactly the right amount of time.

The end result is a delicious ‘conversation’ with the reader, full of passion and brilliance, easy humour and cheeky digs (Baker is either really good friends with Billy Collins or he hates him); it made me want to read and re-read a number of known and unknown (to me) poets, including Swinburne to see how he ruined things.

None of it is dull.

Of the Elizabethans, he says: “They really understand short words. Each one syllable word becomes a heavy, blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line.”

Of Sara Teasdale: “One day she hit her head on the ceiling of a taxi while it was driving over a pothole in New York, and afterward she said her brain hurt and she dropped into a funk and eventually she took morphine in the bath and died.”

When he sees endoplasm on the first page of a twenty page poem submitted by a student he says “I went cold, like I’d eaten a huge plate of calamari.”

(Chowder eventually gives up teaching as a source of income because it depresses him and drains him; he takes up house painting instead, which he finds much more agreeable.)

He talks about the link between weeping and meter, how as babies we cry in a rhythmic way we lose as we grow up. “Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.”

And this about truth: “…you can choose to tell the truth or not to. And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or too boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, grey non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.

“I have no one. I want someone. I don’t want the summer to go by and to have no one. It is turning out to be the most beautiful, most quiet, largest, most generous, sky-vaulted summer I’ve ever seen or know—inordinately blue, with greener leaves and taller trees than I can remember, and the sound of the lawnmowers all over this valley is a sound I could hum to forever. I want Roz.”

I love the poetry lesson throughout, the musings on life, the soul baring honesty mixed with just the right amount of sarcasm, but mostly I love the message inherent in the structure: that sometimes procrastination, distraction and a particular kind of diddling about are the only way to loosen our brains enough to let the good stuff come through.

(~Read on the weekend in the company of sweet woodruff tea.)

(~Discovered through this post at Carol Bruneau’s Blog.)


The Anthologist is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

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