Alice McDermott's 6 favorite books of poetry

The National Book Award–winning author recommends works by Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, and more

Alice McDermott.
(Image credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Scribner, $22).

I love the value of big books of poetry, and for good reason: My parents literally weighed the paperbacks I was required to purchase for school. (Signet Classics' edition of Middlemarch at $5.95 was a good deal. Forty-five cents for The Turn of the Screw? Not so much.) Yeats' collected works might as well be called Poems for All Occasions. Love, marriage, death, divorce ("the hour of waning love is upon us"), reunions, elections. Poems appropriate, as he puts it, for "winding sheet and swaddling clothes."

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden (Vintage, $26).

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In the aftermath of 9/11, the wider world acknowledged the heartbreaking prescience of Auden's "September 1, 1939." I hoped his work would continue to be read on the evening news. Broadcasters could merely open at any page. "Our global story is not yet completed/Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on."

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Vintage, $19).

If an insurance executive can write such poetry, surely there are unseen depths in all of us. I look at the faces in the current administration and wonder if any could be silently composing verse akin to Stevens' "Mildew of summer and the deepening snow/Are both alike in the routine I know./I am too dumbly in my being pent."

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16).

The tactile beauty of Bishop's work, the music of it, serves as an antidote to too much time indoors, online. See "The Moose" ("Towering, antlerless/High as a church/Homely as a house"), "A Cold Spring," "In the Waiting Room," "Filling Station" ("Somebody loves us all").

Collected Poems 1950–2012 by Adrienne Rich (Norton, $50).

I was introduced to Rich's poems when feminism was new, exciting, dangerous. From "Diving Into the Wreck": "I came to see the damage that was done/And the treasures that prevail." Her lifetime's work is no less brilliant and determined and full of yearning now.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Back Bay, $22).

It took me a while to appreciate Dickinson's brief poems. I read them now for their crooked rhythms and weird rhymes, and as a stay against long-windedness.

Alice McDermott's new novel, The Ninth Hour, tells a century-spanning story about an Irish-American family from Brooklyn.

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