The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

(ARC, Simon & Schuster 2009)

UK edition cover (image from Amazon)

I saw this ARC* at my parents’ and picked it up, having read Jenny’s positive review of the book back in May. The Anthologist is the story of poet Paul Chowder, struggling with the introduction to a new anthology of poetry and his current inability to write more poetry. His girlfriend, Roz, seemingly unable to cope any more with Paul’s inability to settle down to actually writing and his chronic procrastination, has moved out, and he misses her. While chronicling his life as he tries and fails to write his introduction, talks to the neighbours, tries to win back Roz, and prepares for a trip to Switzerland to talk about poetry, he muses about poetry and poets.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot, but Chowder as narrator is entertaining and mostly not too self-pitying. He’s very opinionated when it comes to poetry, extolling the virtues of Sara Teasdale and James Fenton, amongst others, and the delights of rhyme and metre, but the thing that does come across is his delight in and enthusiasm for poetry, even if he’s come to the conclusion that he doesn’t write very good poetry himself. Wisely, perhaps, Baker doesn’t give any examples of Chowder’s poetry.

I did enjoy this slim book; it’s beautifully written, and could serve equally well as an introduction to the analysis and appreciation of poetry. Chowder’s enthusiasms and his strong dislikes, such as his antipathy to Ezra Pound (which seems based more on his dislike of Pound’s personal characteristics and his adulation by others, than of Pound’s poetry as such), are conveyed well: the book inspired me to seek out poetry by Sara Teasdale, whom he praises highly. In fact, there are so many poets mentioned of whom I’ve never heard before that it made me feel rather poorly-educated (though being a Briton, I may have other cultural references). He certainly made me want to read Swinburne, even if he sees Swinburne’s effortless production of stanza after stanza of rhymed verse as inevitably producing a reaction, in the form of modernists such as Eliot and Pound.

Thoroughly recommended.

*My sister works in publishing and thus my parents’ house has quite a few proof copies of books lying around.

This entry was posted in 2011 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

  1. celawerd says:

    I have never understood poetry. Maybe I should read this book.

    • Ela says:

      It’s a very personal take on poetry – Jenny’s review (which I linked to) has disagreements with some of Chowder’s remarks about metre, for example. Still, his enthusiasm is infectious!

  2. Jenny says:

    I’ve found Swinburne has to be taken in very small doses. He has some absolutely beautiful lines, but he also has a lot, a lot, a lot of tripe. Alas! But then he says something like “even the weariest river / winds somewhere safe to sea”, and I love him again.

    • Ela says:


      Your comment reminded me that I read a poem on the Underground yesterday (Transport for London have these little posters on Tube trains with poems on them, which are fantastic things to beguile the morning’s commute) by Gerard Manley Hopkins – The Wind Hover – which was dense and wordy and altogether ravishing: even if his first eight lines all ended in -ing.

  3. Pingback: 2011: The year in books | Ela's Book Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s