This is for Peter who nagged me ever so gently for a
Reading Billy Collins is fun. You don’t have to keep
linking back and forth to the online dictionary, parsing the poetic sentence to
determine the complete thought, and wondering what the heck was he saying,
anyway? Billy Collins’ poems are accessible and yet they still pay off because
they are, like all good poems, about life’s beauty and death’s inevitability.
But listening to Billy Collins is even more fun—because he’s funny.
Yep, laugh-out-loud funny.
I know this because I saw him speak last
Friday outside Atlanta at the AJC
Decatur Book Festival. The venue, Agnes Scott College, was packed beyond
standing room. The line queued around Presser Hall (of interest to me only in
an unpractical way as I accompanied my brother-in-law to our VIP seats right up
front—thanks, Sis) a hundred deep an hour before show time.
Mr. Collins, whom I’m dying to call Billy,
was relaxed in a friendly open-collared way. His a-little-too-longish hair
stuck out in those Bozo tufts which he must know added to the comedic sense surrounding
him. He chose poems he knew would get a laugh and his timing was perfect. Also
perfect were his set ups; he introduced each poem with just enough information
to fully welcome the audience to it. I’d always been amused by Billy Collins’
poems on the page but his reading found the absurdities I’d missed in my own.
He was humble—I had forced a pseudo-seriousness on him that didn’t quite fit.
One of the first poems he read was “Fishing
On The Susquehanna In July.” I was charmed because its subject
sprang from the painting I remembered studying in grammar school. Herman
Herzog's Fishing On The Susquehanna
first line, “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna,” opened the poem to
its humor. Neither have I ever fished the Susquehanna, but its image
is a part of the American landscape just as Collins poetry has become a part of
poem he read was “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version
Of “Three Blind Mice.” This one spoke of the power of music to soften
“the cynic who always lounges within.” An interesting aside here from the poet
was that "mice" tend to “come to the surface” in his poems.
Collins said his
poem "Litany" was a send-up of two lines he had come across by
another poet and parodied. His emulation took the poem in a new direction and
I'll bet, I enjoyed it so much, to a new height. It begins with a comparison,
as love poems often have done, to a woman's beauty: "You are the bread and
the knife,/the crystal goblet and the wine./You are the dew on the morning
grass/and the burning wheel of the sun"; it segues to an assessment of the
speaker/poet himself. The audience got a great kick out of his delivery of the
It might interest you to know
speaking of the plentiful imagery in the world
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
But it is his affection for his subject that makes me fond of Billy Collins. The poem's last line speaks of love's intoxicating properties: "But don't worry...//you will always be.../..somehow--the wine."
That’s how Billy Collins is in
person—like a glass of good wine—he makes you feel good and you want a little
I think about the brain and how it retrieves information, the alphabetical filing, the color coding, the associations, etc. We say, what's that word? It begins with a ...g?
Sometimes I solve sudokus but lately I think the discipline of formal poetry might be a better exercise (on many levels).
So I am charmed by this birthday poem written by Brad Leithauser [from the NYROB (May 29, 2008)]. The rhyme scheme is some sort of terza rhyma, I guess, and the final tercet of each stanza is an envoy employing the rhymes of lines 2, 5, and 8.
For her big birthday we gave her (nothing less would do) the world, which is to say
a globe copyrighted the very year she was born—ninety years before. She held it tenderly, and it was clear
both had come such a long way: the lovely, dwindled, ever-eager-to-please woman whose memory had begun to fray
and a planet drawn and redrawn through endless shifts of aims and loyalties, and war and war.
Her eye fell at random. “Formosa,” she read. “Now that’s pretty. Is it there today?” A pause. “It is,” my brother said,
“though now it’s called Taiwan.” She looked apologetic. “I sometimes forget…” “Like Sri Lanka,” I added. “Which was Ceylon.”
And so my brothers and I, globe at hand, began: which places had seen a change of name in the last ninety years? Burma, Baluchistan,
Czechoslovakia, Abyssinia, Transjordan, Tibet. Because she laughed, we extended our game into history, mist: Vineland, Persia, Cathay…
She was in a middle place— her fifties—when photos were first transmitted, miraculously, from outer space.
Who could believe those men—in their black noon— got up like robots, wandering the wild wastelands of the moon,
and overheard a wholly naked sun and an Earth so far away it was less real than this one,
the gift received today— the globe she’d so tenderly fitted under her arm, like a child.
Finally, there’s cake: nine candles in a ring. …Just so, the past turns distant past, each rich decade diminishing
to a little stick of wax, rapidly expiring. I say, “Now make a wish before you blow them out.” She says, “I don’t see—”
stops. Then mildly protests: “But they look so nice.” We laugh at her—and wince when a look of doubt or fear clouds her face; she needs advice.
Well—what should anyone wish for in blowing candles out but that the light might last?
Ekphrasis [on photograph by Annie Leibovitz, New York. 3 a.m. Blues in C.]
Holding the photograph at arm's length above the living room sofa I envision living with it-- larger than life, this classic vanitas, darker than life, Keith Richards on the edge of his hotel room bed
surrounnded by symbols of impermanence a skull on the dressing table a skull scarf draped over the lamp books with turned pages, telescope, and magnifying glass, himself an instrument for bringing distant imaginings closer,
himself the sumptuous arrangement of fruit and flowers adorned in the silk wildness of zebra, leather, and precious silver showing signs of decay his eyes seeds of transitory life these 3 a.m. blues I could live with forever.