Tag: elizabeth bishop

Book Review: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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The tale is simple: Paul Chowder is a poet. Unassuming, quiet; rather boring, actually. Paul Chowder has collected an anthology of rhyming poems, and is now tasked with writing the introduction to this anthology. He’s having a tough time of it. And his live-in girlfriend has left him out of frustration at his listlessness. He spends his days in the barnhouse loft thinking, singing made-up songs to himself, reading poetry (though unsure he even still likes poetry), doing anything but writing the damned introduction. This is the scenario Nicholson Baker drops us into. Perhaps not the most electrifying plot for a novel, but I’m not so sure this is a novel anyway. In reality it’s more like a fake memoir; something closer to Jim Harrison’s Wolf, except with less drinking and sex. I think making this distinction is important to understanding and liking the book as well. If you go into it expecting something in the way of plot, climax, resolution, etc., well, you’ll probably come away feeling a bit cheated. If you come to this book expecting a good story, however, you will feel sated by the end, full of life and good poetry.

The Anthologist is a rambling, free-form book. This line from the book sums it up quite well, actually:

It’s hard to hold it all in your head. All the different possible ways that you can enjoy life. Or not enjoy life. And all the things that are going on.

It is hard to hold it all in your head sometimes. This book is one person letting it out of his head. I hesitate to even approach the phrase “stream of consciousness” because nothing turns off a casual reader (or even an avid reader) like a STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS narrative. Gah! Get away! Make it stop! Baker’s book has much going for it though that should make you consider adding it to your book list. 1) It’s pretty short. 2) It’s pretty funny. 3) Paul Chowder is simply a likable character. He’s nice, sweet in his own way, and has a sort of innocence to him that you don’t usually see male lead characters carrying. Even when he mucks things up, it’s hard to stay mad at him. This makes the book pleasant to read and think about.

And most importantly 4) it’s about POETRY. Yeah poetry! While the book doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry to enjoy, it insists on an appreciation of poetry and all the fun things that go with it, like language, wordplay, rhyme, meter, and melody. Yes melody. Read the book, you’ll get it. Our Mr. Chowder spends a lot of time talking about poetry. You’ll fall in love with the writings of poets you’ve never read before, like Elizabeth Bishop and W.S. Merwin, and then you will spend a Saturday afternoon collecting their collected works. Probably half the book he spends talking about poetry. Yikes, you say. But don’t worry, you love poetry. If you don’t, this book is not for you. But if you didn’t love poetry, you wouldn’t read my blog, and here you are reading it, so you must love poetry, therefore you will love this book.

Find The Anthologist here.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Large Bad Picture”

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Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.

Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,

their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
semi-translucent ranks,
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging n‘s in the banks.

One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,

while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them here,
commerce or contemplation.

~ ~ ~

I recently picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and it has been an incredible read so far. What I especially love about her work is her use of rhyme. She doesn’t draw attention to it the way old poets used to, constructing elaborate mechanisms to build rhyme structures into their poems. Bishop uses her rhymes casually but deliberately, like the way you might crack an egg into a frying pan. Rhyme in this fashion adds another level to the wordplay of the poem, amplifying meaning across words and lines, without erecting an artificial structure to hold the thing up. This is exactly why rhyme is used in poetry and why it is so important, a reason often lost on poets across generations.