The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker (2009)

A nice plum trifle from the trifle-master, about a semi-“successful” poet trying to meet a deadline and win his ex-girlfriend back. The long disquisitions on scansion are pretty dumb, and the soi-disant barbs about the “poetry world” are way less pointed than they could be, but as always Baker offers plenty to love on the local level of the one-liner insight, especially when he’s talking about the contortions writers go through in order not to write. Both the ink-stained wretches in this household read this in a weekend, frequently snorting with glee.

Oh, I do need to add that I found it weird but kind of wonderful how Baker insists on taking so many of his examples of poetry from poets who are not much thought of these days, like Teasdale and Swinburne, for instance. I’m not likely to develop a sudden desire to go back to all the dusty 19th century poets Baker mentions, but the fact that he did, and found happiness in doing so, is a good reminder that the culture’s conception of greatness changes. At one point the narrator suggests that Olson’s time in the sun isn’t likely to last much longer, for example, and that seems to me quite possibly true. Twenty years ago, Jorie Graham was YHWH; I wonder if my 20-something students give her a second thought today. I can see how poets might find this state of things, or rather the lack of any state of things, anxiety-producing; I personally find it hugely liberating, since it means I’m permitted to like what I like when I like it without having to promise I’ll always like it or feel bad because I failed to like it in the past.

Oh, and while I’m nattering. Just read some excerpts from David Shields’ new Reality Hunger. I find his thesis–fiction, with its rickety claptrap contrivance of plot, has become unbearably dull, and so should be supplanted by writing which does away with artifice and speaks directly to the reader–incredibly stupid, for a whole bunch of reasons I won’t go into now. However! Shields would find this novel, as well as several others, perfect fodder for his argument, since the characterization and plot here feel very much like makeup on the face of what is essentially an essay.

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