Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Chowder speaks:

The history of poetry began, quite possibly, in the year 1883. Let me write that date for you with my Sharpie, so you can have it for your convenience. 1883. That’s when it all began. Or maybe not. Could be any year. The year doesn’t matter. Forget the year! The important thing is that there’s something called the nineteenth century, which is like a huge forest of old-growth birch and beech. That’s what they used to make clothespins out of, birch and beech. New England was the clothespin-manufacturing capital of the world. There was a factory in Vanceborough, Maine, that made eight hundred clothespins a minute in 1883. Those clothespins went out to England, to France, to Spain, to practically every country in the world. Clothes in every country were stretched out on rope to dry in the sun and held in place by New England clothespins. Elizabeth Barrett Browning probably used New England clothespins. I’m not kidding.
Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (2009) is a novel in the form of a monologue by Paul Chowder, a poet struggling to write an introduction for an anthology of rhyming poetry. Chowder is genial, klutzy, and lonely. He is a dispenser of writing tips, a proclaimer of truths (like many poets, he knows what he knows, and he knows it’s the truth), and a slightly cracked theorist of meter. His taste in poetry is, well, his own: he loves Sara Teasdale and never “really cottoned” to John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Chowder’s skills in digression and procrastination go hand in hand: witness the sample above.

At one point in his monologue, Chowder mourns the death of good light verse. The Anthologist might be described as a good light novel: it’s a delight to read, funny and entertaining.

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