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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 12:10 AM

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Book review

'The Anthologist': Pure pleasure in a novel about poetry

Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist" is an unlikely achievement — a completely successful novel about poetry and poets.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Anthologist"

by Nicholas Baker

Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25

In the brisk and entertaining "The Anthologist," Nicholson Baker tackles what might seem a daunting task. He writes a completely successful novel about poetry.

His protagonist, 55-year-old poet Paul Chowder, is not having the same luck. Chowder is in a rut. It's not exactly writer's block. He's supposed to be completing a lengthy (40-page) introduction to a poetry anthology called "Only Rhymes," but his life keeps getting in the way. Roz, his companion of eight years, has left him. He injures his fingers in minor accidents. He can't finish a series of poems about flying spoons. Thoughts of other poets and their troubled lives keep intruding on his assignment.

The book is constantly appealing in its witty approach to its ostensible subject — the charms, rewards and continuing values of poetry. Chowder defends a four-beat line as "the soul of English poetry." Seeing a firefly in his peripheral vision triggers thoughts of W. S. Merwin, which develops into a mini-essay on the virtues of enjambment. He spots Edgar Allan Poe in a laundromat in Marseilles and sees Theodore Roethke wearing one shoe, wandering toward him in a midnight mist.

Chowder finds it difficult to separate poets from their lives. Knowing that Sara Teasdale was "heartsick," that Tennyson's father was a "beast," or that Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have used clothes pins from New England affects Chowder's readings of their poems. He decides you "need the art in order to love the life."

"The Anthologist" is pure pleasure — it takes unbridled joy in the love of poetry. It will send readers back to beloved poems or make them search out new ones. Incisive explications of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" and Merwin's "The Vixen," a keen understanding of haiku, and the belief that poetry is still "recovering from Swinburne," makes for provocative fiction.

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