Only Rhyme, but riveting

The Anthologist
Nicholson Baker
Pocket Books; £7.99

PAUL CHOWDER is a poet, a published poet, no less, but if the free verse paean to his erstwhile lover’s choice of white trousers is anything to go by, not a very good poet.

He is engaged in writing an introduction to his forthcoming anthology of poetry, Only Rhyme . . . but is unable to stitch two words together. Anthologist’s block has cost him his lover (Roz) and his weekly grocery cheque (Roz). If something does not happen soon, our protagonist will be in the soup with his publisher.

Procrastination powers this refreshingly funny novel through the brainstorms of a gadfly and gives us delightful insight into an alternative take on poetry. “Poetry,” he says, “is prose in slow motion.” Of course, this does not apply to rhymed verse. And rhyme takes him into the fundamental tenet of his poetic theory: “. . . Iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz . . . Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto.” And, because Chowder/Baker knows our jaws have dropped, he pleads, tongue-in-cheek, “Really, I mean it.”

How can he mean it when the only “real” thing in his life is the mouse that comes out of the cooker each evening and drops his little beads all over the cooker top. This dance of discovery of food, and its retrieval to a nest behind the cooker, is played out in counterpoint to our hero stringing beads as a present for Roz ... anything to avoid the pen.

Somewhere in this parallel universe, where the music of the spheres somehow is at one with Sinead O’Connor’s rendering of She Walks Through the Fair, Paul Chowder daily gathers up his white plastic chair and withdraws to the upper room in the barn to write his introduction. What he gives us instead is a guided tour through the poetry of America and these islands over the past 300 or 400 years: Wyatt, Campion, Bogan, Roethke, Yeats, Pound, Oliver, Auden, Larkin, Longfellow, Tennyson, Poe, Muldoon – some rhymers, some not – Bishop, Fenton, and “the greatest of rhymers”, Swinburne. The list continues because that is what an anthologist does, compile lists, and in this case we are part of the gathering process.

Baker, as in previous work, has shown himself to have the eye of a miniaturist for detail. He is erudite beyond the norm and feeds on language and its resonances with the palate of a gourmand. Above all, he is an iconoclast with the delivery of a stand-up comic – his hallucinatory meetings with Ed Poe and other poets reveal a multi-media playground beyond space and time where form is the element ... if only he could put form on his thoughts. And, just when you think this guy is a lost cause, with 234 pages in your left palm and eight in your right, he dips into the format of Criminal Minds and does a Jason Gideon with: “Roethke said that a country can really sustain only 15 poets at a time, which is about right.”

Epilogue ... Redemption ... and Paul Chowder is back on track.

“I could write forever. This is me. This is me you’re getting. Nobody else but me. You may not want me. I don’t care. I want you to have me. That’s the way it works. I’m here giving and you’re there taking.”

Alright by me, Nick, keep it comin’.


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