The Anthologist

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The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder — a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He's having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction...

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The Anthologist: A Novel

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The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder — a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He's having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction will be a little longer than he'd thought.

What unfolds is a wholly entertaining and beguiling love story about poetry: from Tennyson, Swinburne, and Yeats to the moderns (Roethke, Bogan, Merwin) to the staff of The New Yorker, what Paul reveals is astonishing and makes one realize how incredibly important poetry is to our lives. At the same time, Paul barely manages to realize all of this himself, and the result is a tenderly romantic, hilarious, and inspired novel.

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Editorial Reviews

David Orr
Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry that's actually about poetry—and that is also startlingly perceptive and ardent, both as a work of fiction and as a representation of the kind of thinking that poetry readers do…Chowder is possibly the most appealing narrator Baker has invented.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
[Baker] slips effortlessly into the eager, friendless voice of a man who is every bit as glamorous and dynamic as his name suggests. But Paul turns out to be oddly likable, thanks not only to his funny, self-deprecating thoughts but also to his chronic struggle with language…a portrait of a man whose loneliness, self-consciousness and professional insecurity ought to be painful but turn out to be backhandedly endearing…enjoy this book's intensity. Don't break its spell. Notice the way Mr. Baker glides from Paul's plain talk to his plummier locutions, knowing that Paul is miserably aware of how he sounds. Share Paul's joy in the writing he adores. And remember his best ideas as if they came from a classroom, because they could.
—The New York Times
David Kirby
Like characters in such earlier Baker novels as The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Chowder isn't afraid of the trivial. Indeed, in this witty satire of literary culture, he confers importance on just about whatever pops into his mind by letting his thoughts billow and accumulate. As he natters on about the poor quality of today's brooms or what he'd do if he had a ponytail ("which I don't"), he grows on the reader the way Humbert Humbert or Holden Caulfield does. Or Stuart Smalley, the weepy optimist Al Franken played on "Saturday Night Live." Paul Chowder is endearingly goofy, in other words, like other fictional poets: Percy Dovetonsils, say, from the old "Ernie Kovacs Show," the martini-sipping versifier who lisped "Leslie the Mean Animal Trainer."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In Baker's lovely 10th novel, readers are introduced to Paul Chowder, a "study in failure," at a very dark time in his life. He has lost the two things that he values most: his girlfriend, Roz, and his ability to write. The looming introduction to an anthology of poems he owes a friend, credit card debt and frequent finger injuries aren't helping either. Chowder narrates in a professorial and often very funny stream of consciousness as he relates his woes and shares his knowledge of poetry, and though a desire to learn about verse will certainly make the novel more accessible and interesting, it isn't a prerequisite to enjoying it. Chowder's interest in poetry extends beyond meter and enjambment; alongside discussions of craft, he explores the often sordid lives of poets (Poe, Tennyson and Rothke are just some of the poets who figuratively and literally haunt Chowder). And when he isn't missing Roz or waxing on poetics, he busies himself with a slow and strangely compelling attempt at cleaning up his office. Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Baker has a gift for writing novels about the unlikeliest of subjects. In his first novel, The Mezzanine, he wrote about buying new shoelaces, while Vox concerned an intimate phone conversation. His newest work of fiction is about poetry. The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet who is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems he's collected. He's also trying to win back Roz, the woman who has just left him. These dilemmas make for some enlightening, absorbing reflections on poetry, the creative process, and life itself. While Chowder admits that he despises teaching, the narrative offers a wonderful explanation of what poetry is and the relationship between form and meaning. In the process, Chowder comes to understand himself better and pulls out of a slump. The novel's subtle sense of humor comes through as Chowder deals with injured fingers, a misbehaving dog, and the perils of reading his poetry in public. VERDICT Recommended especially for readers who appreciate—or would like better to appreciate—poetry.—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist/polemicist Baker (Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, 2008, etc.) takes a nullity as a protagonist. Narrator Paul Chowder is a published poet of more renown than many. He has accepted a commission to compile and write the introduction for an anthology of rhymed verse entitled-perhaps with a nod toward E.M. Forster-Only Rhyme. Otherwise, Paul is defined by the nothingness of his life. Though the novel initially appears to concern his attempt to write the anthology introduction, it ultimately exhausts most of its narrative on his avoidance of writing it. Paul's editor sends him threatening e-mails. His devoted girlfriend of eight years leaves him, exasperated. He can't quite let her go, but he also can't quite make himself write, or even start, that introduction. Instead, he cleans his office. He attempts to trap a mouse-ambivalently, for the rodent has become his major companion. He lays a floor for his neighbor. And he thinks so much about poetry and poets that it's clear he could write the introduction at any point, if only he could find the proper tone and format. (He thinks maybe three or four sentences could pass, but the intro could just as easily balloon to more than 200 pages.) Despite his matter-of-fact composure and the chatty tone of his narrative, Paul is always on the verge of breaking down. He rails against the standard elevation of iambic pentameter in the poetic pantheon and builds his case for the four-beat line as all-American meter. He thinks of poets in an oddly chummy manner and holds imaginary conversations with the likes of "Ted" Roethke ("Whoa, Ted . . . Sounds a little like Dr. Seuss, except dark"). He reveals that hepreviously worked for a mutual fund and fled teaching in the middle of a semester, before turning to writing poetry-or not writing poetry, or not writing about poetry-full time. The author's characteristic obsessiveness and attention to minutiae will appeal mainly to those who know and care as much about poetry as Paul. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
From the Publisher
"A slyly intelligent rant about the crazy paradoxes of artistic careerism, and a casual and hilarious series of lessons on poetry." —O: The Oprah Magazine
The Barnes & Noble Review
In a career stretching back more than two decades, Nicholson Baker has repeated himself only once. Room Temperature, his second novel, was arguably a refinement of the navel-gazing technique he brought to near perfection in his first, The Mezzanine. But since then, the only consistent thing about his work has been its delightful, sometimes loopy inconsistency. In a 1999 interview, he compared his zigzagging output to a buffet table: "Sometimes you're at the soup trough, sometimes you're at the salad. It would be nice to be thought of as offering a variety of things, on different kinds of silver salvers."

This is all by way of saying that his follow-up to Human Smoke -- a crazy quilt of anecdotes meant to make the case for pacifism -- is not a thorough debunking of the Spanish-American War. No, Baker has changed gears on us once again. With The Anthologist, we are back on fictional turf, and the focus has shifted from such larger-than-life figures as Churchill, FDR, and Hitler to a minor poet with a savory surname: Paul Chowder.

Baker's protagonist is beset by two major crises. First, he has signed a contract to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhymed poetry: a quasi-impossible task, given his longstanding writer's block. Second, he must win back the affections of his girlfriend Roz, who has recently abandoned him.

As Paul explains, the two crises are not completely unrelated. "She moved on, period," he tells us. "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."

The bill of particulars actually goes on longer than that, and includes Paul's tendency to get gassy after a Caesar salad. But the big picture is clear. We're dealing with a depressive -- a cousin, perhaps, of the nameless narrator in Baker's last novel, A Book of Matches, whose intense pleasure at the tiny increments of experience is persistently overshadowed by the thought of death.

And what is Paul depressed about? To some extent, he argues, such feelings are the poet's occupational hazard.

"Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing," we read. "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 come next."

Rhyme, in other words, is nature's Prozac. And the singing regularity of the four-beat, balladic stanza is something out of the same medicine cabinet: bardic Benadryl.

But this brings us to the crux of the matter. For Paul, like all of Baker's narrators, is a man with an idée fixe -- a man firmly mounted atop his hobby horse. (The same might said of Baker himself, whose fascination with, say, old newspapers led him to accumulate an entire warehouse of them. But his fixations keep changing, as per his smorgasbord metaphor above.) And what Paul really hates is blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter, the sort of thing Shakespeare found perfectly serviceable for 18,000 lines of dramatic poetry. The modern, footless, freewheeling stuff favored by so many American poets is bad enough, "merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly." But blank verse (and even rhyming iambic pentameter) is worse: another kinky French import, like structuralism or Béarnaise sauce. In Paul's view it has warped the progress of English poetry, by drawing it out of its natural four-beat orbit.

It will do no good to brandish your roughly cubical copy of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, with its tiny type and tweedy abbreviations, and read aloud the bit that identifies blank verse as "the most prestigious and successful modern rival to the greatest meter of antiquity." (This strapping volume also notes that Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and among the earliest practitioners of blank verse, called it a "straunge meter": point to Paul.) This is not a scholarly argument, and Paul won't be swayed by the "mind-forged shrivelments" offered up by the standard critical histories.

No, his attachment to the tetrameter is intensely emotional. It is the meter of childhood, of nursery rhymes, of Edward Lear's sublimely nonsensical "Pelican Chorus," which was the first thing to give Paul "the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry -- the feeling that something wasn't right, but it was all right that it wasn't right."

Fine. That leaves the awkward matter of the last four centuries of English poetry: the gazillions of iambic pentameter lines cranked out by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Bishop, and Lowell (which sounds like the most forbidding law firm ever assembled). Has Paul perversely thrown all these worthies overboard? Not in the least. Instead he's found an ingenious mechanism to let them in the back door: at the end of every five-beat line, he insists, there is an additional, silent stealth beat. This evens out the wicked, sprawling irregularity of the pentameter. In fact, the extra beat transforms it into an elastic sort of waltz, which is ultimately a tetrameter in three-beat clothing, since Paul has tacked an extra beat onto the trimeter, too.

Far be it from me to decide whether Paul's theory holds water. Ideally he and James Fenton, cited approvingly in the book as our best modern love poet, would settle the question by arm-wrestling at Westminster Abbey. But the beat that Paul has appended to so many indelible lines -- the poetic pause that refreshes -- seems related to one of Baker's most enduring obsessions. Yes, I will now dabble in a Baker-like inconsistency of my own, and argue that many of his variegated books are about the same thing: stopping time.

His earlier, insanely mandarin novels sought to dissect things -- shoelaces, milk cartons, staplers, a baby and her bottle -- down to their very atoms. To his detractors, this marked Baker as a connoisseur of trivia, unable to see the forest for the trees, and possibly unable to see the trees for the bark. (Along these lines, Stephen King called one of his novels a "meaningless little fingernail paring," a thrust that Baker effectively parried by writing an entire essay about fingernail clippers.) But there was always a purpose behind his microscopic approach. Study a thing closely enough, linger sufficiently over its delicious details, and you impart to it something like eternity.

Baker wrestled with this idea most directly in The Fermata. Since it was published on the heels of Vox -- whose steamy yet cigar-free sexual fantasies caused the young Monica Lewinsky to buy a copy for Bill Clinton -- it was widely viewed as an encore performance by America's dirtiest mind. Certainly the novel, Baker's longest, is not Sunday school fare. It is crammed with erotic woolgathering, with masturbatory sequences of such deep-dish lyricism and flagrant absurdity that they seemed to have been scored by Richard Wagner, if Richard Wagner had been hanging around the Playboy Mansion a little more often. But The Fermata is, literally, a book about stopping time.

And so, in a different way, is The Everlasting Story of Nory, an attempt to freeze-dry the mental processes and the springy, Silly-Putty-like vocabulary of a nine-year-old girl. Most novels are works of preservation, of course. But Baker was especially methodical in this book, which I would call the runt of the fictional litter, about capturing the likeness of his own daughter. In the same interview mentioned above, he described how "her childishness was on the brink of vanishing. I knew her quite well as a 7-year-old and as an 8-year-old and as a 9-year-old, and if I didn't try to create a fictional world that was true to her personality, I'd lose it."

All of which brings us back to that phantom beat at the end of each line. Paul Chowder is quite correct to insist that when we get to the end of All human things are subject to decay, we stop. But we are not stopping out of a compulsion to even things out, like frantic hosts filling an empty chair at a dinner party. We are in the midst of a fermata: a pause of indefinite duration. The mind is, at that instant, a kind of reverberation chamber, in whose boomy confines we absorb the information we have just read. And during that instant we are somehow outside the poem, outside its insistent cadence and pedal-to-the-metal urgency. Time has stopped. The preceding syllables, no lengthier in their aggregate than a popsicle stick, mingle with what came before and point to what will come next. It's like Wordworth's gloss on eternity in The Prelude, whose five iambic stresses would make Paul Chowder's scalp itch: "Of first and last, and midst, and without end."

Needless to say I'm advancing a theory as idiosyncratic as Paul's. And needless to say I'm convinced that they secretly overlap. His stealth beats are the same as my everlasting pauses. Readers, meanwhile, may wonder what happened to the plot of The Anthologist --you know, Paul's wooing of the absent Roz.

"Oh, plot developments," says Paul, toward the end of this slender book. "Plot developments, how badly we need you and yet how much we flee from your clanking boxcars. I don't want to ride that train. I just want to sit and sing to myself. I want everything to be all right." Folks, the poetry is the plot. The Anthologist is itself Paul's introduction, over which he has sweated and wept and whined, with his personal life creeping in around the margins. The romance is a thing of sweetness and delicacy, but the events are small, as they so often are in Baker's books. In his hands, remember, even World War II, the Greatest Generation's greatest epic, turned into a string of anecdotal pearls, most of them no longer than a paragraph. Like watching paint dry, is the dismissive phrase some might apply to his micro-narratives, which is exactly the wrong one, since I'm sure Baker could write a charming, brilliant book about paint drying if he felt like it.

But it would probably be a small one. That, again, is no complaint. I'm reminded of Gore Vidal's lofty, backhanded swipe at The Great Gatsby, which he called "a small but perfect operation comparable, say, to Grant's investiture of Fort Donelson." (That battle, incidentally, marked the last time Grant ever listened to his council of generals -- which is to say, his critics.)

Small is good, small is beautiful. Baker, I think, has taken his cue from the inchworm that falls onto Paul Chowder's pant leg in the early pages of The Anthologist: "It was still for a moment, recovering from the fall, and then its head went up and it began looping, groping for something to climb onto. It looked comfortably full of metamorphosive juices -- full of the short happiness of being alive." --James Marcus

James Marcus is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, as well as six translations from the Italian. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, and his essay "Faint Music" was selected for Best American Essays 2009. He also edits the "Ideas + Reviews" section of the Columbia Journalism Review and is the proprietor of a blog, House of Mirth.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416572442
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/8/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker has published seven novels and three works of nonfiction, including Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.


An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.

Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."

In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)

Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).

Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."

Good To Know

A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.

His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.

Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.

One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Rochester, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Haverford College, 1980

Read an Excerpt


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 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.

My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure. Obviously I’m up in the barn again—which sounds like a country song, except for the word “obviously.” I wonder how often the word “obviously” has been used in a country song. Probably not much, but I don’t know because I hardly listen to country, although some of the folk music I like has a strong country tincture. Check out Slaid Cleaves, who lives in Texas now but grew up right near where I live.

So I’M UP in the second floor of the barn, where it’s very empty, and I’m sitting in what’s known as a shaft of light. The light leans in from a high window. I want to adjust my seat so I can slant my face totally into the light. Just ease it into the light. That’s it. If this barn were a prison cell, this would be the moment of the day that I would look forward to. Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn’s arm reaching down from her spot-lit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.

There’s one droopy-bottomed wasp diving back and forth, having some fun with what’s available. I can move my head a certain way, and I feel the sun warming up the clear flamingos that swim around in my eyeballs. My corneas are making infinity symbols under their orange-flavored lids.

I can even do eyelid wars. Do you do that? Where you try as hard as you can to look up with your eyeballs, rolling them back in your head, but with your eyes closed. Your eyelids will keep pulling your eyes back down because of the inter-lock between the two sets of muscles. Try it. It’s a good way of passing the time.

Don’t chirp at me, ye birdies! I’ve had enough of that kind of chirpage. It cuts no grease with me.

WHEN I COME across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. For instance, here’s a stanza by Sir Walter Scott. I’ll sing it for you. “We heard you in our twilight caves—” Try it again.

It’s written in what’s called a ballad stanza. Four lines, four beats in each line, and the third line drives toward the fourth. Notes of joy can pierce the waves, Sir Walter says. In other words, notes of joy can cut through the mufflement. Notes of joy have a special STP solvent in them that dissolves all the gluey engine deposits of heartache. War and woe don’t have anything like the range and reach that notes of joy do.

And yes, of course, there are things that should be said about iambic pentameter, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I don’t want to slight “the longer line.” I hope we can get to that fairly soon. My theory—I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse of it here—my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz. It’s not five-beat rhythm, even though “pent” means five, because five beats would be totally offkilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable. Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really, I mean it.

And what romanticism did was to set the pentameter minuet aside and try to recover the older, more basic ballad rhythm. Somewhere along the way, so the Romantic poets felt, the humanness and the singingness and the amblingness of lyric poetry became entangled in frippery and parasols, and that’s because we stopped hearing those four basic pacing beats. That’s what Walter Scott was bringing back when he published his border ballads, and what Coleridge was bringing back when he wrote the Kubla Khan song and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They were bringing back the ballad. “Where Alph, the sacred river ran”—four beats. “Through caverns measureless to man”—four beats. And it’s the basis of song lyrics, too, because lyric poetry is song lyrics, that’s why it’s called lyric poetry.

And you know? I’ve read too many difficult poems. I’ve postponed comprehension too many times. And I’ve written difficult poems, too. No more.

YOU’RE OUT THERE. I’m out here. I’m sitting in the sandy driveway on my white plastic chair. There’s a man somewhere in Europe who is accumulating a little flotsam heap of knowledge about the white plastic chair. He calls it the “monobloc” chair. A word I’ve never used. Monobloc, no K. And I’m sitting in one. Its arms are blindingly white in the sun.

His name is Jens Thiel. God, I love Europeans. Jens. Especially the ones from smaller countries. Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium. I love those places. And of course: Amsterdam. What a great name for a city. Paul Oakenfold has a piece of trance music called “Amsterdam.” His name is Paul, and my name is Paul. Paul: What is that crazy U doing there? Paw—U—L.

A woman is walking by on the street. Ah, it’s Nanette, my neighbor. I knew it was her. She’s carrying a garbage bag. She’s picking up trash, I guess. Nan does that. She has an early-morning stroll sometimes, and I’ve noticed she takes along an empty trash bag tucked into her back pocket. I’m going to wave to her. Hi! Hello! She waved back.

Yes, she’s picking up a beer can and shaking it out, and now she’s putting it in that trash bag. The beer can is faded to a pale violet color. I think I can almost hear the soft rustle of the bag as things fall into it. Pfft. Pfft. Sometimes maybe a clink.

Nan is or soon will be divorced from her husband, Tom— Tom, who every weekend went windsurfing in a blue-armed wetsuit. She has a son named Raymond, a good kid who plays lacrosse. And she now evidently has a new boyfriend, a curly-haired man named Chuck, annoyingly handsome.

OF COURSE YOU already understand meter. When you hear it, you understand it, you just don’t know you understand it. You, as a casual reader of poems, and as a casual listener to pop songs, understand meter better than the metrists who misdescribed it over several centuries understood it. Even they understood it better than they knew.

My neighbor Nan seems to be fully committed to her new flame, Chuck. His car is in the driveway again. I suppose that’s a good thing. She deserves to be happy with a good-looking man like Chuck.

Roz, the woman who lived with me in this house for eight years, has moved away.

My dog is shedding because it’s summer, and then the birds, that keep chirping and chirping, make nests of the dog hair. It’s good for that.

I wish I could smoke pot. What would that do? I don’t even know where I would get pot around here. Somebody said the wispy dude with the pointy sideburns who works at the pet-food store. Could I maybe offer some to Roz, as a dramatic gesture? I’ve never bought pot in my life. Maybe it’s time. No, I don’t think it is. Too involved. But I think I will step in from the driveway for a moment to get a clear glass bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. I do love a palate cleanser of pure Newcastle Brown.

Roz is kind of short. I’ve always been attracted to short women. They’re usually smarter and more interesting than tall women and yet people don’t take them as seriously. And it’s a bosomy kind of generous smartness, often. But she’s moved out, so I should stop talking about her.

I’m a little sick of all the bird chirping, frankly. They just don’t stop. I mowed the lawn yesterday so I wouldn’t have to hear their racket. “Chirtle chirtle.” It’s constant. And as soon as I started mowing I knew this was the best thing I could be doing. Walking behind this armful of noise, going around, turning the corner I’d already turned, circumventing the overturned canoe. I ducked under the clothesline that Roz strung last year between the barn and the box elder tree. The white rope is now a lovely dry gray color. She used to hang many beautiful tablecloths and dishtowels on that clothesline. I should use it myself, instead of the dryer, which is making a thumping noise anyway, and then if she drove by she’d see that I was being a responsible person who dried my clothes in the sun. I wish I’d taken a picture of that clothesline with her faded shirts on it. No bras that I remember, but you can’t expect bras necessarily on a clothesline. You have to go to Target to see bras hanging nobly out for the public gaze.

I got in bed last night and I closed my eyes and I lay there and then a powerful urge came over me to cross my eyes. I thought of tragic people like Don Rickles, Red Skelton, people like that. Broken professional entertainers who maybe once had been funny. And now they were in Vegas, on cruise control, using their eye-crossing to allude to their early period of genuine funniness. Or they were dead.

So I crossed my eyes with my eyes closed. And I saw something in the dark: two crescent moons on the outside of my vision, which were the new moons of strain. I could feel my corneal pleasure domes moving, too. And as my eyes reached maximum crossing I felt an interesting blind pain of wrongness. I decided that I should hold on to that.

SO NOW, you’re waiting. I’ve promised something. You’re thinking okay, he’s said he’s going to divulge. Your hope is that I, Paul Chowder, have some things that I know that you don’t know because I have been a published poet for a while. And maybe I do know a few things.

One useful tip I can pass on is: Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority. Memorize them if you want to, but the main thing is to copy them out. Get a notebook and a ballpoint pen and copy them out. You will be shocked by how much this helps you. You will see immediate results in your very next poem, I promise.

Another tip is: If you have something to say, say it. Don’t save it up. Don’t think to yourself, I’m going to build up to the truth I really want to say. Don’t think, In this poem, I’m going to be sneaky and start with this other truth over here, and then I’m going to scamper around a little bit over here, and then play with some purple Sculpey over here in the corner, and finally I’ll reach the truth at the very end. No, slam it in immediately. It won’t work if you hold it in reserve. Begin by saying what you actually care about saying, and the saying of it will guide you to the next line, and the next, and the next. If you need to arrange things differently later, you can do that.

And never think, Oh, heck, I’ll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I’ll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I’ll be more ready to confront the more haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It’ll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s Best American Poetry and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.

Another tip: The term “iambic pentameter” isn’t good. It isn’t at all good. It’s the source of much grief and muddle and some very bad enjambments. Louise Bogan once said that somebody’s enjambments gave her the willies, and she’s right, they can do that to you. You shudder, reading them. Most iambic-pentameter enjambments are a mistake. That sounds technical but I’m talking about something real— a real problem.

And finally, the really important thing you have to know is: The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.

PEOPLE ARE GOING to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting. They’re going to talk to you about Chaucer and about blank verse—which is another confusing term—and all this so-called prosody they’re going to shovel at you. And sure—fine—you can handle it. You’re up to whatever mind-forged shrivelments they’re going to dish out that day. But just remember (a) that the word “prosody” isn’t an appealing word, and (b) that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.

Woops—dropped my Sharpie.

Right here: One—two—three—four. “Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still.” I think that was the very first poem I heard, “The Pelican Chorus,” by Edward Lear. My mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is. Those singing pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bare islands of yellow sand, and they swapped their verb tenses so that then was still and still was then. They were the first to give me the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry—the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right. In fact it was better than if it had been right.

In the middle of the night

Miss Clavel turns on the light

Hear that? Another four-beat line. My mother read that one to me, too. And “Johnny Crow’s Garden.” And A. A. Milne and his snail and his brick. Milne was a metrical genius. And Dr. Seuss, of course, the great Ted Geisel. Who probably was, if I really want to be truthful and honest—and I do, of course—the poet most important to me until I was about twelve. You remember the little intense guy with the hat on, who’s on his stool in the Plexiglas dome, counting the people all over the world who are going to sleep?

And it scans. “Two Biffer-Baum birds are now building their nest.” It rhymes—it relies a fair amount on silly proper names, but it rhymes—and it scans perfectly. Dr. Seuss was a stickler for scansion. He was part of a lineage that runs back through Punch and Lear and Gilbert and Sullivan and Lewis Carroll and Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends. He uses the four-beat line in the great old way. In fact, I’d say almost all the poems that I heard as a child were classic four-beat lines.

Hell, let’s get into it. Where’s my Sharpie again? Okay:

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. “Tetra” is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?

And his aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink.

That’s Lear again. Hear it? You can’t help but hear it. Four beats in each line. That’s the classic rhythm in poetry, and in songs, four beats. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

And what is Art whereto we press

Through paint and prose and rhyme—

When Nature in her nakedness

Defeats us every time?

You’ve got to admit that’s good. That’s Kipling. Did you hear what he did? “When Nature in her nakedness defeats us every time.” Do you hear how he just drills that line right through your heart muscle? The “nay” of Nature and the “nay” of nakedness just push right through and screw you to the back of your chair. Oh, Rudyard, you were good in the 1890s. You were a nineties man.

But notice there that Kipling’s second and fourth lines have a rest. A rest on the fourth beat. Listen for the booms now.

And here’s kind of a curious historical fact. Nobody, for years and years and years, centuries even, was able to say that poetry had those obvious booms. Nobody paid attention to the rests. Well, not nobody. There was a poet named Sidney Lanier, a flute player who was dying of consumption. He gave some lectures at Johns Hopkins on the musical basis of verse, but he had a fever, and he would get tired out and have to sit beside the podium and cough horribly and catch his breath and then continue—and his way of scoring rhythms was unfortunately wrong and only added further confusion. But he did understand that poems could have rests at the ends of lines.

Besides Lanier there was really nobody of any significance talking about rests in the straightforward musical sense of a place where you tap your toe without speaking. Poets had to be hearing these rests in their heads, because they wrote a million poems with them, poems of great comeliness that you can prance around to—but they didn’t know that’s what they were doing.

Finally came Derek Attridge, a man with a sensitive ear who taught at Rutgers. In 1982 he introduced the idea of what he called “unrealized beats” or “virtual beats.” Quote unquote. In other words, rests. They’re rests. How hard is that?

I almost had forgotten (rest)

That words were made for rhyme: (rest)

And yet how well I knew it— (rest)

Once upon a time! (rest)

That’s Christopher Morley. A light verser. Four beats in the line, the fourth beat being a rest. I hope you can hear it.

A good way you can scan something, by the way, is by saying it softly to yourself while counting with your fingers. Don’t look at the line. Memorize the line and look away from it and say it to yourself. Start with all your fingers in the air, and when you hear a beat, bring down your thumb, then your index finger, then the next finger, then the next. “I almost had forgotten, rest.” Like that. That’s how to do scansion like a pro. I don’t recommend the accent marks that some people use over syllables—they look so pedagogical. If you want to mark a line, use underlines.

Anyway, that pattern, the four lines together, four beats for each line—sometimes with rests and sometimes without rests, sometimes with a longer third line that has a stretched-out ending that leads you right in to the last line and sometimes not—that pattern makes up what’s called the common stanza or the ballad stanza, which is really the basis of English poetry. It was for Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, all the way through to Yeats, Frost, Teasdale, Auden, Causley, Walter de la Mare, and James Fenton. Four beats is the key.

And within each beat there are subsystems of movement, duplets and triplets, waiting and breathing and sliding. It’s— well, there’s a lot more to be said. But we’ll get to that farther on down the line.

I WENT TO BUY a tablecloth to replace the one that Roz took when she left, so that I could wash it and hang it out on the clothesline. That way if she happened to drive by she might see it hanging there.

Inside the store many women were slowly moving sideways, looking at the glassware and the placemats and the bowls. There must have been thirty women in the store, and one couple in their seventies. I moved past the couple, who were looking at a square white serving bowl with a lid. “It would be nice for soup,” said the man. “Yes, true, for soup,” said the woman. The man said: “Or for stew, a big country stew.” And the woman said: “Yes, true, for stew.” And he said, “So what do you think?” And she said, “Well, it’s square. I think perhaps we should get the round one, and if they don’t want it they can return it.”

Finally I came to the tablecloths. There was one with a faint green viney pattern that looked like something that Roz would have possibly bought, so I grabbed it. It was heavy in my hand, and it pushed my fingernails into the soft parts of my fingertips as I held it out to the woman at the register.

When I got home I put the tablecloth on the table and had a late lunch/early dinner. I spilled some red sauce on the tablecloth, which I was happy about because I could wash it right away. I put in a load—the tablecloth, a pair of pants, a shirt, a towel, and two T-shirts, saving the underwear for another time—but by the time the load was done spinning the day was done, as Longfellow would say, and it was raining and the clothesline was swinging in the wind, so I couldn’t hang anything up on it. I had to use the noisy dryer.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 9, 2010

    A Delicious Novel about Poems - and Plums

    To the best of my admittedly slim knowledge, Nicholson Baker does not write poems - or plums, the narrator's term for free verse. But he obviously loves them. In fact, the book strikes me as a love story between narrator Paul Chowder, a poet who just can't seem to fulfill his commitment to write the introduction to a poetry anthology, and the poetry he fails to write about. Ironically, you could pretty much pluck a few pages of the book at random, and you'd have a brilliant introduction to a collection of 20th century poems. If it was up to me, The Anthologist would be required reading in 20th century poetry classes. A novel as a poetry text? Well, why not?

    Of course, the frustration for the reader is that Paul's sublime musings don't find their way into the anthology introduction he's supposed to be writing. Indeed, nothing finds its way into the anthology introduction. I keep wanting to reach into the pages of the book, grab Paul by his shoulders and shake, exclaiming, "You idiot! It's all right there! Just write down what you're thinking for heaven's sake!"

    Yet for all his infuriating inertia, I can't help but like Paul. Any guy who names his dog Smacko and dips his knees to the rhythm of ZZ Top as he peruses the contents of his refrigerator is okay by me.

    The only part I hate is the end of the book. Since it's about 90 pages away, I don't know what happens yet. I just know I hate it, because once I get there, I'll have to put the book away and read something else that probably won't be as good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 12, 2010

    Very Slow

    The author kept dropping subjects and picking up new ones without any logical explanation or transition. I lost track of characters and often didn't understand where certain characters came from.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

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    I bought this book on a whim, at a bookstore that was going out of business. This was one of the best impulse buys I've ever made. I'm not really into poetry, but after readying Paul Chowder lovingly struggle to write an introduction to an anthology he's compiled, I'm going to look for some of these poets and get into them.

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  • Posted November 21, 2009

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    Hunter-gatherer of words

    good for the mind and heart, and soul. May not resonate with all...but if you are a writer (or would-be) - then recommend

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    Superb Book

    I loved it; kept quoting it to people

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