The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Two Books (oh my!)

[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, my first recommendation here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com. ]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Abby, who blogs about invertebrate marine biology over at The Spineless Life. Weren’t expecting that, were you? Abby and I attended the same high school, walked the boards of the same stage, and now she’s an awesome scientist-ninja.

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

My go-to authors change as I read through all of their material. Among people still writing, I am partial to John Irving and Ian McEwan, but also have a very strong liking for Steinbeck, Zola, and Edith Wharton (among recent favorites). Oh, and C.P. Snow.

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

I spend all day reading technical science writing, but I still love popular science, as well as travel memoirs. I frequently pick up histories and biographies but rarely make it through.

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

5 books for a week? Oof. Let’s go with a book of nature essays by David Quammen, The Glass Bead Game (Hesse), Atonement, Slaughterhouse Five, and Wuthering Heights. (actually, that’s a nice cross-section of my strange reading habits right there.)

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?
5 books for 5 years is actually easier, because my to-read list is full of long ones that would require that sort of time. War & Peace (no really, Anna Karenina is a favorite of mine), In Search of Lost Time (does that count as a single book?), Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and to balance all of this heft, Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik, already read and loved), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (also a favorite).

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?)

Hm. Climate change. My love life. The meaning of family. The state of the academic job market.

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

I love things that rhyme and have meter, and really don’t like things that don’t. I adore Poe and Longfellow, and “O Captain My Captain” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “In Flanders Field” and pretty much everything else that you would find in an anthology of familiar, comforting verse. When I find something new that I really like, it has some element of familiarity — the rhyming scheme or the rhythm. French surrealism and I did not mix well.

There may have been a fist pump in my vicinity when I read the first phrase of Abby’s last answer: “I love things that rhyme and have meter.” Me too, ladyfriend, and while I’ll read pretty much any kind of poetry out there, there’s something sweet and satisfying about ye olde formalism.

Or, for that matter, the New Formalism. Yes, my Dear Readers, just like 90s fashion, formalism is back. Well, it never really went away (neither did 90s fashion, judging by the amount of flannel that’s lived in my closet for the intervening years), but let’s set that aside for the moment while I recommend post-World War II poetry for Abby.

Given Abby’s fearlessness toward long reading assignments (War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time), I’m going to be daring and recommend two books:

photo (73)Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism came out in 1996, and it’s a great sample of newer formalist work. As with all anthologies, not every poem will appeal to every reader, but I think Abby will find lots to like here. I’d especially recommend the poems by Andrew Hudgins, professor of poetry at The Ohio State University, fabulous reader, and friend of several friends.


photo (72)One of Professor Hudgins’s former students is Ashley McHugh, and it’s her luminous debut, Into These Knots, that I’m also recommending. (Full disclosure: Ashley is a friend, and I’ve met Andrew Hudgins a few times, and been regaled with tales of his workshops more times than I can count.)  Ms. McHugh is an especially accomplished sonneteer, as you’ll see when you read this poem, “The Unquarried Blue of Those Depths is All But Blinding,” which she wrote for her now-husband.

Abby, I 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.

“they don’t pause, don’t buzz, don’t / fly up in fear and light again”

I’ve been itching to feature this poem all summer, but I restrained myself until the timing was right — and now it is!

Image courtesy SweetCrisis /

Image courtesy SweetCrisis /

This week, I’m working on Andrew Hudgins’s sublime “Wasps in August.” You can hear Professor Hudgins read the poem here, at Slate (text too). And you should immediately go find Ecstatic in the Poison, from which this poem comes. I own two copies, and I am, sad to say, not sharing.

Professor Hudgins is one of the best living formalist poets, and a kind and funny man to boot (he teaches at The Ohio State University, alma mater of your humble blogger). I’ve never had the pleasure of taking his classes, but my friends who did treasure the experience. He was gracious enough to support the campus literary magazine and its young poets, and he was (and is) a highly-regarded mentor to new poets.

This poem describes the dying days of the wasps outside the speaker’s home, who defend and nurture their larvae in the nest. But it’s about more than that: frailty, death, rebirth, renewal, futility . . . I could go on.

The last line will floor you.

Recommended Essay: “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America,” by Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland’s piece in Harper’s, which you can read here, is long and worth the length. His opening salvo is a lament for the state of poetry in schools, and an argument for poetry’s necessity:

 . . . poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.

He’s certainly not the first to suggest that students (and sometimes teachers too!) have a difficult time engaging with non-contemporary poetry, but I like his concrete proposal for building a common American cultural vernacular: teach twenty contemporary poems to all students.

Now, I know there’s a lot of talk out there in the education world about Common Core standards, and I’m not going to get into it here (I have my doubts, to put it mildly.). But I do think it’s essential, as does Hoagland that we all share at least some cultural references in common. I’ve written before about the all-university summer reading requirement at Ohio State, and how wonderful that was.

As I used to tell my students, you’ll be awfully embarrassed at your in-laws’ cocktail party/barbecue/mini-golf outing/gallery opening if you don’t know who Hamlet is.

What I especially like about Mr. Hoagland’s piece is his suggestion that we do not jettison the classics, but rather work backwards toward them:

The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.

If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.

Brilliant. And true; pairing contemporary poems with older poems is an excellent teaching method, in my experience. Students are surprised (and thrilled) to learn just how sex-filled John Donne’s poetry is (oh is it ever), and that a good number of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a man.

You’ll find the list of twenty poems that Mr. Hoagland recommends at the end of his essay.  I’d add Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and “Ecstatic in the Poison” by Andrew Hudgins. Which poem or poems would you add?