- Simon & Schuster Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 05 August 2010
- Modern & Contemporary
Showing 1-4 out of 28 reviews. Previous | Next
Well, this may be the most delightful book I have read this year. Paul Chowder's life isn't going particularly well. Sometime poet and current anthologist, he is struggling to write an intro to his anthology of poetry, ONLY RHYME. But his chronic procrastinating has left him without a girlfriend, without cash, and, it sometimes seems, without hope. Paul longs to win Roz back by completing the intro, but instead he seems to spend a lot of time sitting on his driveway in a white plastic chair.But Paul is not your ordinary embittered failure. He is neither embittered nor a failure, in fact - just a sincere and genuinely kind guy who can still get pretty wound up when talking about poetry. His first-person narrative is funny, humble, sweet, and rambling - because he can't talk long without telling you something pretty neat about poetry, about meter, about enjambment or Edgar Allen Poe or Swinburne or what a good idea it is to to dance about in waltz steps to iambic pentameter.Nicholson Baker (really? That's really his name?) has a marvelous gift for putting words together in such a perfect way that you think they must have been born to be placed just so. I loved this: "Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space...All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good."Or this: "When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what's wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up."I'm only a little messed up. I'm tortured to the pint where I don't sleep very well sometimes, and I don't answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something. Also, I've run up significant credit-card debt. But that's not real self-torture."Paul's passion for poetry keeps this narration from sinking into greyness; it stays funny, lively, and fascinating throughout, until I wanted nothing more than for Paul to win back his short, loving, generous Roz - and finish that damned intro. Plus, he healed a long-standing wound in me by pointing out that iambic pentameter is not on five beats, but six or three, WHICH I TRIED TO TELL MY ENGLISH TEACHER IN HIGH SCHOOL (but she wouldn't listen.) Lovely, lovely book. And the cover is beautiful, too.
I was only about 20 pages in before I started recommending this book to everyone I know. It was on my list because I'm interested in books that play with our sense of what a novel is supposed to be and do, and this is a marvelous example of that, but so much more, too. It's also the crash course in poetry I've always wished for, and a meditation on writer's block and, more broadly, failure in general. It's charming and fun and thought-provoking and made me instantly want to write a novel just like it. By far my favorite so far of Baker's books.
This book it did reach out to meWith salted humor, on bended kneeImploring grace for poetry.Liked it a lot - a couple of chapters o'er the top with the technical woo-woo, but mostly fab.We root for Roz!
My husband has been teaching two sections of poetry this semester, and he marvels at how wary his students are of the stuff. Even after they understand the technical underpinnings – form, meter, rhyme, metaphor – many of them still don’t take to it, don’t delight in the striking language that can ravish the soul.Me, all I need to do is think, “I shall rise now and go, and go to Innisfree,” from Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and I feel myself grow calm, my muscles go limp (“And I shall have peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”). Or I recall “Come slowly, Eden,” the Emily Dickinson poem my husband sent me by email after our first meeting, by which I knew that he and I were going to have a future. Poetry surrounds and sustains and informs us, makes us happy, makes us think.I want to give The Anthologist to all of my husband’s students and tell them: “This, this is why you should love poetry. Paul Chowder will tell you exactly why it’s so wonderful, and you’ll finally understand.” The novel, narrated by Chowder, is an extended love letter to poetry. Chowder is a poet of some minor repute himself, and he has just finished putting together an anthology called “Just Rhyme.” All he needs to do to finish it and get the royalties rolling in is write an introduction. But Chowder has a case of writer’s block that just won’t give. As a result, we’re treated to his ruminations on poetry, a sort of talking rough draft as he carefully avoids doing any serious writing. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know,” he begins."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."And everything does come tumbling out, in ways funny and profound, silly and sensible, thoughtful and thoughtless. How else to explain a passage like this:"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."Yes, it does seem like Chowder is a failure, but it’s apparent that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. It doesn’t make sense that he’s a failure when he’s able to not work at anything – he isn’t a professor/poet, has only taught a bit and hated it, and he doesn’t seem to have inherited money, so one is almost forced to conclude that he has made enough from his writing to sustain himself. The occasional job of manual labor can’t possibly be enough to sustain him. Roz, the woman he loves and who lived with him for eight years until she couldn’t deal with his writer’s block any longer, doesn’t seem to have supported him. And he’s been asked to be a featured guest at a seminar in Switzerland, so he must be a poet of some repute. Just who is this guy?We never really find out – but we do find out a lot about poetry. Meter is Chowder’s particular bête noir. He believes that most poems rely upon a “rest” to fill out their meter, so that poetry that seems to have three beats usually has four. He doesn’t think much of iambic pentameter, either, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare. He’ll often spell out the meter, with little numbers in circles about lines of poetry to give us the beat, until we seem to be able to hear that rest, too.He’s also big on rhyme, as you might expect from an anthologist who has just completed assembling a volume called Only Rhyme. He isn’t exactly opposed to free verse, and believes some fine poems have been written in free verse, but really, “I always secretly want it to rhyme. Don’t you, some of you?” He believes that a poem that doesn’t rhyme shouldn’t even be called a poem:"It’s a plum, not a poem. That’s what I call a poem that doesn’t rhyme – it’s a plum. We who write and publish our nonrhyming plums aren’t poets, we’re plummets. Or plummers. And some plums can be very good – better than anything else you might happen to read ever, anywhere. James Wright’s poem about lying on his hammock on Duffy’s farm is a plum, and it’s genius. So is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, 'The Fish,' of course. 'I caught a tremendous fish' – genius."A paragraph like that makes you want to run for your own anthologies, doesn’t it? I pulled my copy of Bishop’s poems from the shelf because I hadn’t read “The Fish” before. Chowder’s right about it; it truly is wonderful. You haven’t really looked a fish in the eye until you’ve read this poem, and you certainly haven’t understood how much we share with our piscine prey.Chowder walks us through his days of thinking about poetry, and I started to understand what he was doing, because it’s familiar to me from my own writing. He’s writing his introduction to his anthology in his head, working it out, figuring out what he wants to say, sorting out what matters and what doesn’t. This is a vision of how a poet and scholar works. It’s brilliant. And it’s peculiar. I loved it for both characteristics.The temptation to quote passage after passage is strong, but I will resist and simply tell you that you must read this book. Whether you like poetry or not, you really should read this book. Rarely have I seen an author take such joy in words and how they are arranged on the page, and it is definitely contagious. Baker is always doing something new and strange; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This time, it most definitely does.
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