I'm not a poetry reader, but after reading Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist I wish I was. And just maybe I will become one. This is such a great book on poetry, almost a primer for poetry lovers--even those like me who know so little about poetry (maybe especially for people like me). What's nice about this book is how excited Paul Chowder, the narrator, is about reading and writing poems. It's hard not to get caught up in his excitement and appreciation of the form. Now that I've read it for the story I feel like going back and reading it for all the other information he shares in a way that's not at all didactic (well, maybe it is sort of didactic, but he does it in such an entertaining way it doesn't feel like it) but totally interesting.
I finished this over a week ago, but much like Paul Chowder I've not been terribly motivated to write about it. Don't get me wrong, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nicholson Baker is someone I've long wanted to read (actually I read Vox ages ago when it caused a big stir, but that was because I was working in a bookstore and felt I needed to keep up on the books everyone was talking about--so somehow I feel like that doesn't count--besides I've more or less forgotten the story). It was Dorothy's enthusiastic post that finally convinced me now was the prefect moment. She wrote about it so well I feel like I just need to point you in her direction and then you'll want to read it, too. Paul Chowder is a published poet, but he seems to be in a bit of a rut. He's supposed to be working on an introduction to poetry--rhyming poetry by the way--but he just can't seem to get the introduction written. Only fifteen pages, but he spends more time thinking about what he wants to tell readers that he never seems to get inspired enough to sit down and write them. Much like me and this post. So I guess I will share a few things with you, though mostly so I can sneak in some great quotes from the story.
"I want to tell you why poetry is worth thinking about--from time to time. Not all the time. Sometimes it's a much better idea to think about other things."
So Paul Chowder is writing an introduction to a rhyming poetry anthology. He knows a lot about poetry and has a particular love and appreciation for rhyming poetry, but he reads other types of poetry, too. He's full of little tidbits of information and trivia about poets and their lives, which he shares with the reader, and sometimes with his neighbors. Paul was in a serious relationship with Roz, but she's left him because he's going nowhere with his work--this introduction. So it's just him and his dog, Smacko (isn't that a great name?). He's just an average type of guy really, and maybe it's his averageness that's so interesting and at times funny because he does and thinks the sort of quirky things we all do, but somehow on the page what he thinks is really amusing--I found myself chortling (and chortling is the perfect word really), because I could relate. He cleans out his office, and he weeds his poetry anthologies and boxes them up, and he goes out and buys an easel, pad of paper and Sharpie markers to help him in putting together this introduction. What's funny is all along as he's thinking, and the book is essentially made up of his thoughts, he's writing the perfect history of rhyming poetry and why it's still important--voilà, his introduction, but somehow his thoughts never translate onto the printed page.
"Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We've got to face that. And if that's true, do we want to give drugs so that people won't weep" No, because if we do, poetry will die. The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It's like chain-smoking--you light one line with the growing ember of the last. You set up a call, and you want a response. You posit a pling,and you want a fring. You propose a plong, and you want a frong. You're in suspense. You are solving a puzzle."
I don't think Nicholson Baker is a poet, but you can tell he must love poetry and knows a lot about it. The story just flows for all its disconnectedness of different thoughts. And he knows a lot about music, too. The only thing that I felt was a bit over my head were the musical notes. He sometimes would put a line or two of poetry to music, but I was pretty much lost by that as I can't read music. Still, no worries, as there wasn't a lot of this and I didn't feel that I was especially missing out on something important. I wonder if Nicholson Baker has a special fondness for rhyming poetry, too, or just his character Paul Chowder. Paul doesn't limit himself to rhyming poetry, either reading or writing, but this anthology is only rhyming poetry, which was really very important historically, and still is (though those modernists came along and pulled the rug out from under it).
"It's not a crossword puzzle--it's better than a crossword puzzle, because you're actually trying to do something beautiful. But it's not unrelated. The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves. They also don't want to face the world's grief head-on. They want that transient pleasure, endlessly repeated, of solving the Rubik's Cube of verbal intersection. But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle? Maybe, maybe. I have not."
"Rhyming is the genius's version of the crossword puzzle--when it's good. When it's bad it's intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented. But when it's good, it's great. It's no coincidence that Auden was a compulsive doer of crossword puzzles and a rhymer, and a depressive, and a smoker, and a drinker, and a man who shuffled into Louise Bogan's memorial service in his bedroom slippers"
I wish, if nothing else, I would have written down the poets Paul Chowder talks about, and there were a lot of them. He talks a lot about Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish, and about Louise Bogan and Charles Swinburne (who was the rhyming poet) and Mina Loy (who came along and helped make poetry more modern) to name a few. Just reading about the various poets and how many of them knew each other and played off each other was fascinating. Paul taught poetry, but he didn't last long when faced with students writing really appalling poems. So if he could just write this introduction then life would be good and maybe Roz would come back.
"I think I'm going to RiverRun Books and look at the poetry shelves. When I see new books for sale that I already own, it makes me happy. It makes me feel that there's part of the world I really understand."
Doesn't he sound like a totally likable guy? I can so relate to him.