Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

I’m back from vacationing in the cool climes of the Great North Woods, which felt even better this year than usual after the very hot summer we have had.  I saw no bears in hammocks.  I saw no bears at all, actually.  In fact, I haven’t seen a bear in a few years.  Which is a shame.  Now it is back to reality and back to the ungodly heat.

With temperatures topping 100 degrees here in the Midwest, I went to my favorite local independent bookseller to stock up on a few paperbacks that would entertain me while stuck inside in the air conditioning.   One thing I’ve discovered about summer is that publishers think readers are looking for fluff beach reads during the summer months but that’s not what I want in the summer.  I’m in Missouri – we don’t have a beach.  We have pools but they are surrounded by concrete and are hot when the temperatures are hot. 

When I’m stuck inside I want to feel like I’m reading something worthwhile.  So after conversations about the vampire craze in novels and about satirical novels and how I sometimes don’t get them when they are set in New York, she picked up a yellow paperback and said “The Anthologist is out in paperback.  I learned more about poetry while  reading this novel than I think I learned in any poetry class”  I thought, that’s the one.   And it was.

Written in the first person in a conversational style it isn’t a difficult read and yet it is packed through with discussions about poetry and meter.  In a way it reminded me of a book version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.  We follow the principal character, Paul Chowder, around as he procrastinates and provides us with a running commentary on his life and his thoughts about poetry, especially the difference between free verse and “rhyming” poetry.  Paul, a poet who writes free verse, is in love with rhyming poetry and has finished compiling an anthology of such poetry.  But now he is procrastinating about writing the introduction to the anthology.  His girlfriend, Roz, has moved out and he wanders around thinking about poetry, Roz,the conference he is going to in Switzerland, the mouse in his kitchen, and whatever else pops into his mind. 

I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought.  There is lots left in the world to read.

For days I had a dissatisfied feeling.  I couldn’t focus.  I was nervous about Switzerland.  I’m going to be in a panel discussion there on “The Meters of Love”, with Renee Parker Task, who’s a hotshot among young formalists.  Just the kind of thing I’m bad at.  Being empanelled.  All yesterday afternoon I thought about timed backups, and search results, and mermaids, and women wearing clothes, and women not wearing clothes, and I felt unlyrical. And then I got in bed and I read a short biography of Nathalia Crane in an old textbook, and I read a poem by Sara Teasdale, and I thought about turtles. And then in the back of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volume I, I wrote, “Suddenly there is lots to read.” I also wrote:  “Mary Oliver is saving my life.”

One thing I really like about books of poems is that you can open them anywhere and you’re at a beginning. If I open a biography, or a memoir, or a novel, when I open it in the middle, which is what I usually do, I’m really in the middle. What I want is to be as much as possible at the beginning.  And that’s what poetry gives me.  Many many beginnings. That feeling of setting forth.

This isn’t a long novel, only about 240 wide spaced pages, and I flew through it in one sitting.  But I might go back and read it again because it is just crammed with good things to think about.