The Bookshelf: Poet Midge Goldberg

May 13, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features poet Midge Goldberg. In her new collection, Snowman's Code, the Chester, New Hampshire embraces rhyme. It’s a rare for poets these days to use rhyme so frequently, but she does it with unusual grace and humor. Snowman’s Code won the recipient of the 2015 Richard Wilbur Award. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Goldberg's bookshelf, listen to her conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.

Midge Goldberg's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. "I love the distinct characters in this novel and the very full and separate lives they each lead. At the same time, since they all in the same small town, it's fascinating to see how Kingsolver weaves their lives together, and really creates a sense of place. And since this books includes hiking, gardening, canning, and cooking, some of my favorite hobbies, it's been a favorite of mine for a long time."

2.   Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. "Another book that focuses on a very specific place, this time a small harbor town in Maine, and the remarkable characters who people it. Within this very small setting, Jewett tells wonderful stories about individuals, their histories, and their relationships. I first read this in college and have made a ritual of reading it every August, trying to match the feeling of the Maine coast described in the book."

3.   Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur. "Richard Wilbur is a poet upon whom I can rely to blow the top of my head off. 'The Barred Owl' gives me chills every single time I read it. 'Blackberries for Amelia' always makes me cry. So many poems, so many delicious words, some of which creep into my own poems, just because I love the sound of the words."

4.   My Antonia by Willa Cather. "Another book very firmly rooted in a place. I like the combination of the very concrete, spare story of an immigrant pioneer girl trying to learn farming and English and American culture, along with the more metaphorical aspect of her creating a world out of the new language she is learning. I guess I like stories about small places and how a person fits into that landscape."

5.   A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. "A childhood favorite, that combines a nerdy girl, love, sonnets, and space travel. How can you go wrong with a combination like that?"

I’d love for you to start by reading a poem for us. Could you read, “Harpsichord”?

Harpsichord

What happened to the harpsichord,
for which the great composers scored?
Scarlatti, Purcell, Bach, and Byrd,
those Goldberg Variations stirred
the soul until one holy day
Christofori began to play.
The piano’s forte — sounding loud
and soft, and suddenly the crowd
was wowed, indeed, the horde was floored —
“Oh, Lord, we’re bored with the harpsichord,
So many levers, so few keys,
to do what pianos do with ease.”
The final blow was who was sidin’
with pianos — Mozart…Haydn!
Over the years few played it: Lurch,
some vicar at some village church,
a carpenter out in Seattle
preserved the craft — an uphill battle —
but honestly, it just sounds tinny,
grating like My Cousin Vinny.
Just because of a simple hammer,
pianos still get all the glamour.
The harpsichord’s flat out of luck
with no one left to give a pluck.

I laughed at the end of this poem and I had to read it again aloud because the sounds are so lovely, as are so many of the poems in this book. They have sounds that bounce and resonate within the poem. This is something apparently you like a lot.

I do. I like playing with the sounds, sometimes getting a laugh. Sometimes I use the rhymes to get a laugh.

Rhyming is not as popular as it once was. Are you trying to bring it back?

Well, I am only one of many. There’s a new formalist movement that’s been going on for many, many years. There’s amazing people right in this area who are writing in form, meter, and rhyme. I just love it. I like how it adds to the meaning of the poem. I like how it forces you to search for words that sometimes bring out a meaning you didn’t even know was there. So I like writing in it.

These poems—I can describe them in a word that some poets really resist. I don’t know if this is a dirty word for you. You can tell me if it is. The word is “accessible.”

Oh, no. I love that. Because so many people say, “I don’t usually like poetry, but I like your poetry.” A poem has to work on the first level. You want to just get it. Then it has to have an underlying meaning as well, or else it’s not really a poem. But if I lose you at the first level—if you don’t even get what I’m talking about—you’re just going to stop listening. So for me it’s important to make it work on both of those levels.

Which poets do you think consistently make it work on both of those levels?

Well, you go back to the big names, you know, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Richard Wilbur. And then there’s modern poets that I know, work with. Rhina Espaillat. I’m a member of a group and I could list off four or five people in that group that all reach me the same way.

Another poem I really like in this collection is called Salt. Could you read that for us?

Salt

I threw salt today,
over my shoulder,
a superstition
I was trying,
thinking I would adopt it
if it worked out well for me.
Throwing salt’s the kind of thing
that should be ingrained,
like other things I came to late,
like loving you
and that’s worked out pretty well,
knock on wood.

Another one of those poems where the last line surprises you and makes you laugh. At least it made me laugh.

Good! This is a free verse poem. I write some in free verse. Usually when I start a poem and here where it’s telling me to take it, whether it’s going to be a sonnet or a villanelle, or sometimes free verse. Sometimes I just need shorter lines when it’s free verse.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a poet in a serious way?

It was all sort of a coincidence. I wanted to study short stories, so I took this class in short stories and poetry. We did this short story part, and then the teacher put a pile of books on the table and said, “Pick one.” And my hand fell upon this book by Rhina Espaillat and I thought, “This is what I want to do.” That was about sixteen years ago now, and I’ve been writing poetry ever since, and no short stories.

No short stories?

No.

You also write children’s books. Is there a relationship between what you write for children and what you write for adults?

I like to write in meter and rhyme and I think there’s a connection in that clarity, in that accessibility, in what kids will relate to. So I’d say that’s a connection. And the real-life connection is that my friend who asked me to write the words for it is married to a poet I know.

This most recent collection was the recipient of the Richard Wilbur award. Are you working on a new collection?

I am. I’m always working on poems, and when I get enough of them, I start thinking of them in terms of a collection.

And you’re also working on a murder mystery.

Yes, I am. The initial idea for it came from a poem in this book. Just a character I invented for the poem and I liked her so much I started thinking about what else she could do.

I’ll try to guess which poem that is. “Breakfast Shift at the Inn”?

That’s the one. Takes place in Northern New Hampshire, in Franconia or something awfully similar to Franconia, and goes from there.

I must confess I haven’t met too many poets who also double as murder mystery writers.

It’s a new thing for me, but I had a good time writing it, whatever happens with it.

You’re married to a poet.

I am. Robert Crawford.

Are you each other’s editors?

Yeah, well, as we joke, sometimes you have to worry about being plagiarized at the breakfast table. But we read each other’s work. Usually we’re the first readers of each other’s work, and we write. We both write in meter and form, but we write very differently, too, so it’s like a complementary relationship rather than a competitive one.