A Longreads Member Exclusive: 
The Anthologist (Excerpt), by Nicholson Baker

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This week's Longreads Member pick is Chapter 1 from Nicholson Baker's 2009 novel, The Anthologistpublished by Simon & Schuster. The excerpt comes recommended by Hilary Armstrong, a literature student at U.C. Santa Barbara and a Longreads intern. She writes:  

"Someone I love once told me that they don't understand poetry. It's all random line breaks and rhythms she can hear aloud, but not read on paper—and what is a poem other than the observer of something beautiful showing off? What is there to condense in a poem that hasn't been done already? Why is poetry so highfalutin and important?

"The Anthologist follows a man who loves poetry but is struggling with it, or, more specifically, struggling to write an introduction to a poem anthology. He talks about poems as song lyrics, as logical progressions, and as the backbeat to all art. He answers the common questions surrounding poetry, and clarifies some of the deeper ones. If you are a writer, reading this book has a similar effect that reading High Fidelity does after a breakup.

"In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker accomplishes something amazing and resonant—reading it feels like having one of those really savory conversations with someone else, someone who 'gets' you like no one else at the party does."

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The Anthologist (Excerpt)Nicholson Baker | Simon & Schuster | 2009 | 16 minutes (3,920 words)
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad
Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I'm going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you. I'm going to divulge them. What a juicy word that is, "divulge." Truth opening its petals. Truth smells like Chinese food and sweat.

What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion. Now, that isn't true of rhymed poems. It's not true of Sir Walter Scott. It's not true of Longfellow, or Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Yeats. Rhymed poems are different. But the kind of free-verse poems that most poets write now—the kind that I write—is slow-motion prose.
My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I'm a study in failure. Obviously I'm up in the barn again—which sounds like a country song, except for the word "obviously." I wonder how often the word "obviously" has been used in a country song. Probably not much, but I don't know because I hardly listen to country, although some of the folk music I like has a strong country tincture. Check out Slaid Cleaves, who lives in Texas now but grew up right near where I live.

So I'm up in the second floor of the barn, where it's very empty, and I'm sitting in what's known as a shaft of light. The light leans in from a high window. I want to adjust my seat so I can slant my face totally into the light. Just ease it into the light. That's it. If this barn were a prison cell, this would be the moment of the day that I would look forward to. Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn's arm reaching down from her spotlit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of ? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.

There's one droopy-bottomed wasp diving back and forth, having some fun with what's available. I can move my head a certain way, and I feel the sun warming up the clear flamingos that swim around in my eyeballs. My corneas are making infinity symbols under their orange-flavored lids.

I can even do eyelid wars. Do you do that? Where you try as hard as you can to look up with your eyeballs, rolling them back in your head, but with your eyes closed. Your eyelids will keep pulling your eyes back down because of the interlock between the two sets of muscles. Try it. It's a good way of passing the time.

Don't chirp at me, ye birdies! I've had enough of that kind of chirpage. It cuts no grease with me.

When I come across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it. I've been doing this a lot lately. For instance, here's a stanza by Sir Walter Scott. I'll sing it for you. "We heard you in our twilight caves—" Try it again.

From The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker.  Copyright © 2009 by Nicholson Baker. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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