Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010
From my TBR pile. The only other work I’ve read by Baker is a nonfiction book, Human Smoke.
Paul Chowder, an occasionally published poet, is trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology entitled Only Rhyme. He’s having trouble.
But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed. So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen. What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.
And in order to be relaxed at the easel, I drank a Newcastle. Also coffee, so that I would be sharp. And still I wasn’t sufficiently relaxed, so I drank some Yukon Gold that I found in the liquor cabinet. No, not Yukon Gold, that’s a potato, Yukon Jack, a kind of Canadian liqueur. It was delicious. It added a slight Gaussian blur. And then some more coffee, so I’d still be sharp. Blurred, smeared, but sharp. from page 29.
Paul is adrift, his girlfriend has left him, at times he is heartsick, at times full of piss and vinegar, and his editor is getting nervous. Always, his head is filled with poetry, with language, and he talks about it. A lot. It made me laugh. He also talks about the formation of language, stuff I had to spend many hours learning about before working with students with dyslexia. Just brilliant.
Baby talk, which is full of rhyme, is really the way you learn to figure out what’s like and what’s not like, and what is a discrete word , or an utterence, and what is just a transition between two words.
How does it happen? Well, it happens gradually, and it happens by matching. Matching within and matching without. First you have to learn that a certain feeling in one part of your body, your tongue, matches with a certain feeling in your brain, which is a sound. A slightly different feeling in your tongue matches with a different sound coming out of your mouth and a different sensation of muscular control registering in your brain. Each subtle difference of sound feels different. And this is all very difficult and takes a lot of trial and error and babbling and drooling and lip popping and laughing. from page 107.
I like poetry. It is obvious that Nicholson Baker likes poetry. He has written one of the best books about poetry I have read. Fiction or nonfiction. Maybe the best. He talks about rhythm and meter in ways that are easy to understand, ways that are fun, like a pop song with a great hook. I don’t think you even have to like poetry to enjoy this novel. If you don’t, The Anthologist might open up a whole new world for you.