AS SOMEONE WITH only a passing interest in poetry, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying Nicholson Baker's new novel, The Anthologist, which is truly and utterly all about the dusty art. And even for those who lost interest in seventh grade after a purple turn at writing angst poems, Baker has enough enthusiasm and charm to make even the finer points of corrugated metal seem stimulating. He's the poetry professor you wish you'd had.
The Anthologist's protagonist, Paul Chowder, is a joy. He's like your jovial, melancholy-tinged uncle, sitting up in his barn loft surrounded by poetry books and waiting for inspiration to strike. As a semi-successful poet—published every now and again in prestigious magazines—Paul's experiencing a sticky case of writer's block right as the introduction to his new anthology is due. He's a poetry enthusiast, in love with Poe, Yeats, Sara Teasdale, and all manner of rhymes and free verse; he sees poetry everywhere, hilariously waxing about life's beats. "Nice chirpin' there, Mister Birdie! Good one. I like what you did there. That's good! Funky bitch! Love your work!" But even though he knows the importance of the poetry that surrounds him, he's mentally crippled, unable to write and heartbroken because his girlfriend just left him.
Like in most of Baker's best books (the brilliant and dirty The Fermata and Vox), The Anthologist's stream of consciousness flows wide as Paul follows his ardent thoughts about poetry and his neighbors and his dog and the sordid lives of dead poets. One gets the feeling that Nicholson (and Chowder, by proxy) has read and loved more poetry than anyone you'll ever know. The two of them are infectious as they do all the heavy verse lifting for you, pointing out beautiful rhymes and lovely syntax, making up melodious word puzzles, and prodding you to sheepishly read lines of songs out loud to hear the inherent beats.
The Anthologist is a funny and bittersweet novel, an ode to the lost love of rhyming poetry, the symmetry of romantic couples and couplets, and the ability to shake off life's writer's block. It's a collection of sounds, pauses, laughs—and a realization that you might, in fact, actually like poetry. Before this, no one had ever explained it so succinctly.