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Good Books: Henry Hughes on Fishing

Henry Hughes is a poet, professor, and fisherman. His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Antioch Review, Shenandoah, and Poetry Northwest, and his commentary on new poetry appears regularly in Harvard Review. He is author of three poetry collections: Men Holding Eggs received the 2004 Oregon Book Award; Moist Meridian was a finalist in 2011; and Shutter Lines, published in 2012, includes photographs by Paul Gentry. Hughes is the editor of the Everyman’s anthologies, The Art of Angling: Poems about Fishing and Fishing Stories.

"There are dozens of good books involving sport fishing, and many of our greatest authors have found in fishing some of life’s happiest and most painful moments," notes Hughes, who admits difficulty in narrowing his favorite books on fishing. "Chekhov, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, to name but a few, loved to fish and write about it. Among those essayists who write specifically about fishing, I count David James Duncan, Ted Leeson, Marjorie Sandor, and Thomas McGuane as the best."

Henry Hughes shares his three favorite books on fishing:

The Longest Silence
by Thomas McGuane

The Longest Silence is my top pick for a book in the genre. “Early on, I decided that fishing would be my way of looking at the world,” McGuane tells us in the opening of this collection of essays. He travels widely and is passionate about fishing, especially fly-fishing, but unlike many fly-fishing philosophers, he doesn’t just gush over pristine rivers or get all ultra-precious about trout on the dry. McGuane is sophisticated and reverent but also down to water level, you might say. He is funny and brilliantly insightful about people and fishing. “Humans have suspected for thousands of years that angling and religion are connected. But if you can find no higher ideal than outfishing your buddies, catching something big enough to stuff or winning a trophy, you have a lot of work to do before you are what Izaak Walton would call an angler.” McGuane humbly reflects on the psychological and cultural aspects of angling, and he shapes sentences as elegantly as long casts over wary bonefish. This is a great collection.  

A River Runs Through It
by Norman Maclean

Family fishing stories are even more susceptible to the quaint and corny, and they can feel very dated, but Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It holds its place in the currents of time as a beautifully written novella about Montana, fly-fishing, people, love and art. I teach the book every couple of years and it continues to make me see, smile, laugh and consider the great metaphors linking fishing and life. Set in 1930s Montana, Maclean’s semi-autobiographical narrative features a father who is a Presbyterian minister and angling mentor, preaching that “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art doesn’t come easy.” Equally challenging and rewarding is Maclean’s relationship with his brother, Paul, a colorful raconteur and master angler with a dangerous taste for drink and gambling. The heartbreak in this story gets me every time, but Paul is immortalized in the lyric prose: “The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.”

Big Water
by John Engel

There are a lot of fine poems about fishing. Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, Dave Motes, Derick Burleson, Sandra Alcosser, and Roseann Lloyd have written some of my favorites. But there’s a little known collection, Big Water by John Engels, that brings together images, sensations and water-world discoveries in such finely crafted lines that I can feel them hold, hold, hold, and then let go like a fish, or life itself. The poem “The Disconnections” about hooking and losing a sailfish off Cape Bianca in the south Atlantic is packed with energy that beautifully breaks free with a line-snapped fish and a dazzling reverie that exceeds anything that might actually have been gaffed and lashed to the boat. And there’s the quiet, color-soaked meditation on life and death in “Damselfly, Trout, Heron,” where, again, full possession always lies beyond the physical, “beyond reach / on the far side of the river.” Engels writes of a struggling home aquarium with the same mortal energy as a man falling out of a boat and nearly drowning. These poems understand our stewardship and existence through water. With striking narrative leaps and turns we experience the rivers and lakes of Vermont, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Wisconsin, as well as those unnamed dark pools of our own imaginations where hope and possibility undulate unseen.
                . . . I’ll be staring
        into the ravenous power
        I’ve always known
        to be holding there.  I know
        of other spots like this one, where
        in some fluid congress of the general dark
        something heavy takes
        secret breath . . .    
This is an indispensable collection for the poetry-minded angler.


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