[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, the first recommendation here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]
This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Rick, who blogs about books over at Another Book Blog. Rick went very public with his poetry concierge request (a minor, forgiven insurrection); he further stipulated that he’d like me to recommend two books of poetry, which will become part of his self-re-education program. No pressure or anything.
1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a go-to author, to be honest. I don’t have anyone specific that I turn to when I’m in a reading funk. If anything, my literary achilles heel has always been how easily I get bored with any one thing after a while. However, if there’s anyone who even comes close, it’s Tad Williams. He’s probably my single biggest inspiration, and the author from whom I’ve read the most.
2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)
I really love nonfiction books about people who challenge the status quo. I’m not a big backer of rebellion per se, at least not in any physical way, but intellectual rebellion really appeals to me. I’m fascinated by religion, and science, and historical shifts.
3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?
A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All, because it’s basically an encyclopedia in less than 400 pages. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, because it’s the best science text for the uninitiated I’ve ever read, and I swear to god it’s funny. Apathy and Other Small Victories, probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. Essex County, my favourite graphic novel of all time, a truly brilliant piece of literature short enough to savour in just a week of exile. And a book of Mad Libs, because ever since I discovered how funny they can be when you think of the most disgusting answers possible, they’ve been one of my favourite things on Earth.
4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?
I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari, and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Four of them because they’re four of my favourite single volume stories (and they’re all really long), The Brothers Karamazov because I’ve always wanted to read it, and five years on Mars sounds like I’d finally find the time.
5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)
I’ve always been a fan of righteous indignation. I’m fascinated by spirituality even though I don’t subscribe to anything in particular. I’m in awe of the universe and all it’s (likely) unanswerable questions. I couldn’t give two s**ts about conversations regarding politics and the environment because there hasn’t been a single one I’ve come across that hasn’t degenerated into smart people sounding like partisan a**holes. [Sorry for the censorship, but my Mom reads this blog, so, you know. –CO]
6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?
The one work of poetry that’s actually resonated with me (that’s lasted more than a month is In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson. I’ve always been awestruck at how thousands of people have been arguing both for and against its Christian/anti-Christian message for hundreds of years. It takes a special kind of rhetorical talent to receive adamant support from both of those groups at the same time. For the record, I think it’s clearly a Christian poem by the end, but Tennyson’s willingness to question his faith has always been the measuring stick to which I hold up all religious persons. Furthermore, it’s just beautifully written and undeniably tragic and heartfelt.
As for what I don’t like: If you prescribe me something like The Red Wheelbarrow, then “Friends Off.”
Like I said, no pressure.
Rick’s into big ideas — science, religion, meaning of life, that kind of thing, so right off I dismissed light verse as a possibility, even though Rick has a wily sense of humor (no Edward Lear for you, Rick.). And while I’m tempted to round out Rick’s poetic education with other DWMs (Dead White Men, for those in the peanut gallery) — think Yeats, Eliot, Browning, Donne — I think living poets deserve to be read by a reader like Rick.
So here are my bold picks:
Anne Carson’s work defies categorization, blending poetry, Classics (capital-C), translation, drama, essays, prose, and scholarship. She’s a phenomenal intellect. I was tempted to start off with the unbelievably good Glass, Irony, and God, but given Rick’s fondness for Satan — the Miltonic Satan, that is — I think a poem about a winged red monster might be in order. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is incredibly weird and wonderful, a novel in verse form (framed with some classical scholarship and jokes — just go with it, and it works) in which she transforms the myth of Geryon — said monster, killed by Herakles as one of his labors — into a most unusual bildungsroman. Geryon is a lonely, artistic soul, just a little boy when we first meet him, and Ms. Carson captures his pain and his pleasures with a lens that’s never sentimental, only scintillating. It’s heartbreaking and gorgeous. I’m surprised every time I re-read it.
Bonus: Anne Carson is Canadian, so Rick gets a little CanLit infusion for his syllabus.
Double Bonus: There’s a sequel!
Next, I’ve selected Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (which won the Pulitzer in 2012). You want science and the universe, Rick? Here it is. As the New Yorker‘s review puts it, “Smith’s central conceit allows her to see us, our moment, as specks in the future’s rearview mirror. Futures and pasts are, in astronomy as in poetry, all mixed up.” Life on Mars is, in part, an elegy for Ms. Smith’s father, who worked on the Hubble space telescope. The tone varies from wonderment to fury and back again, as the poems consider matters both existential and quotidian, personal and political. Take a look at “Sci Fi,” which is the poem of the week, for an example of Ms. Smith’s original take on the future.
Rick, I (fervently) hope you’ll find poems you love in these books. Thanks for writing in!
Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.