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.

“And beyond them a stretch of open country / That strives into the sea.”

Ashley McHugh*, a poet and friend, directed my attention to this poem, “A Figure of Plain Force,” by Michael Heffernan (to be more precise, she pointed out the next poem on the page, but I was drawn to the first poem).

Grass by C.R. Oliver

In “A Figure of Plain Force,” the speaker considers “you,” a person turned into an open door in the early morning. We aren’t given anything about their relationship, or even the person’s gender, but I couldn’t help imagining the speaker as a child remembering his mother readying herself to meet the day. She might work on “nothing of consequence,” or perhaps she’ll fall into a whirl of activity to finish a task she’d left undone.

As you’ll note from the line I pulled for the title, the location is somewhere near the ocean, but when I read these lines:

In this condition you pretend to lean
Solidly into the open while you gather
The winds about you by deliberate grace
Turning you into a figure of plain force,
Careful and candid, never in a dither,
Given to nothing noisome or unclean.

I can’t help but think of a pioneer woman looking out onto a sea of prairie grass, formidable in her determination.

What’s your reaction to the poem?

*By the way, you should check out Ashley’s glorious first book, Into These Knots.