Paul Chowder is trying to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming verse, but he’s having a hard time getting started. The result of his fitful struggles is The Anthologist, a brilliantly funny and exquisite love story about poetry. (from the cover blurb)
It’s also a love story about his amiable but ambivalent and sad break-up with girlfriend Roz, which is prompted by Paul’s procrastinating.
Reading his meandering and rueful narrative is like listening to an old friend go on about something perplexing and dear because it’s his turn, and you’re reminded why he’s an old friend, because you still get the same jokes and ask many of the same questions, and he’s endeared himself to you in a hundred ways even though he occasionally gets on your last nerve, and you totally understand why his girlfriend moved out. You also continue learning about poetry, because that is his thing and it always comes up. Life according to poetry could be the book’s subtitle.
“I always secretly want it to rhyme,” Paul says. “Don’t you?” And you realize you do, and then rhyme as metaphor and motif takes off.
He goes on: “People have been struggling over this idea that rhyme is artificial and unnatural for hundreds and hundreds of years. And meanwhile poem after poem gets written that people really want to listen to. And a lot of those poems rhyme. Imagine what would have happened if Campion had succeeded in his effort to fuss and scold rhyme out of existence and banish it from English poetry. Four hundred years of pretend Greek and Latin meters is what we would have had, instead of Marvell, and Dryden, and Cole Porter, and Christina Rossetti, and Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rogers and Hart, and Wendy Cope, and Auden, and John Lennon, and John Hiatt, and Irving Berlin, and Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein, and Charles Causley, and Keats, and Paul Simon, and et cetera, and so on. Whole floors of libraries could be filled with poems that we would not have had.”
In the process of procrastinating and ruminating, Paul fumbles through the day to day, occasionally experiencing imaginary encounters with poets in rote places (like meeting Edgar Allen Poe at the Laundromat), and actual encounters with girlfriend Roz when they reconnect to bathe their dog, Smacko, or bring over chicken soup, or mow the lawn – the sort of mundane stuff that Nicholson Baker so masterfully makes interesting and even profound.
Even when reading about poetic technicalities like meter and enjambment (complete with chalkboard graphics), I remained completely engaged, and if given the chance would have snuggled up with the cat by the fire to read the whole thing in one go, and in the end totally thought Roz should move back in.