The Anthologist

Amy Gerstler’s introduction to the 2010 Best American Poetry anthology references a book called The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker.  How did I miss this book when it came out in 2009?  Well, I did, so I got a copy from the library.  Gerstler references the book because she felt kinship with the book’s main character, Paul Chowder, who also selected poems for an anthology and now must write the introduction.  Chowder’s girlfriend leaves and his publisher abuses him, but still he dithers and instead of writing the introduction, takes the reader on a spin through poetic history, the history of rhyme’s demise and a theory of the four beat line.   His anthology is called “Only Rhyme.”

In addition to providing some great leads on anthologies, such as The Poet’s Tongue by W. H. Auden and John Garrett, which is wending its way to me from England for only $14.49, Nicholson includes advice for poets, a sweet love story – between him and the missing girlfriend Roz – and he resurrects a few rhyming poets who are largely forgotten, such as the Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne, the American Vachel Lindsay, and Chowder/Nicholson’s favorite, Sara Teasdale.

The book is funny, too.  Here is what Paul Chowder says in response to his fourth grade teacher’s introduction of free verse.

“What does she mean it doesn’t have to rhyme?  It does have to rhyme!  It’s got to rhyme because rhyme is poetry.  Where did Little Miss Muffet sit?  Did she sit on a cushion?  Did she sit on a love seat?  No, she sat on a tuffet.”

I enjoyed the advice to poets, especially the point that Gerstler also quotes, that a poet must “Put it down, work on it, finish it.  If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s Best American Poetry and see it under somebody elses’ name, you’ll hate yourself.”  Indeed.

At the end of the book, Chowder gives a Master Class during a poetry conference, and in response to a question about how he initiates a poem, he replies, “Well, I’ll tell you how.  I ask a simple question.  I ask myself:  What was the very best moment of your day?”  This moment “…will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am – I am the best moment of the day.”  And that is exactly what he will write a poem about.

Sort of like one of my Haiku moments.

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