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The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

October 23, 2009

41vgEjenBEL._SL500_AA240_Last year I read two books by favourite writers, both of which disappointed a little. The biggest let-down was Exiles, by Ron Hansen, at least part of which was about a poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The other more slight disappointment was So Brave Young and Handsome by Leif Enger, which was about a novelist with writer’s block.

So, The Anthologist, about a failed poet with writer’s block, was approached with just a little trepidation. The poet in question is Paul Chowder, who, though of some renown in his younger days, has aged badly. His continual failure to complete a collection of poems about ‘flying spoons’ is a regular rebuke. He has been commissioned to publish an anthology of rhyming poetry and write an introduction to it but he constantly procrastinates. His gentle exasperated girlfriend has left him, his dog smacko is neglected and all he seems to do is sit on a white plastic chair in an attic room and reflect.

In between regular fulminations about modernist poetry, and poets he despises, or loves or is jealous of, nothing much happens. He cuts his finger and lies down. He receives a left-over chicken dinner from his neighbour who is delivering meals on wheels. He lays a wooden floor for a friend. He rings his girlfriend looking her to return.

And it’s delightful. Absolutely delightful. Funny. Moving. Instructive. Honestly, if you imagine that a series of chapters on the mechanics of poetry could be worse that the latest Dan Brown, you’d be wrong.

I loved the regular advice on poetry that he offers, like read your writing in a foreign accent. Or most tellingly, at the conclusion, when asked how he achieves the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem, he has his breakthrough with the advice that he says has sustained him over the years,

I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?

Go ahead and try it.

From → Books, Poetry

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