The rarest, most daunting kind of poetry to write well is obvious yet original, and funny but profound, all at the same time.
Typically, young poets start out writing poetry steeped in angst and tortured imagery, because it’s much easier to be obscurely original, and sadly profound —
one reader might think you’re deep because they don’t understand you,
and another think you’re profound because your poems are depressing.
As Edwin Hubbel Chapin put it: “Some people habitually wear sadness, like a garment, and think it a becoming grace.” However, a large number of the world’s greatest poems have to be read over many times to reveal the layers of meaning, and they are often about loss — of youth, of love, of life. It takes long years of struggle to acquire the depth of feeling combined with experience that go into creating such exceptional poetry.
Billy Collins (1941 — ) writes the rare and daunting kind of poetry, and makes it look easy. He takes the everyday, and gives us a new way of seeing it. Many of his poems are wryly humorous, but they spring from a deep understanding of the human condition — all its pettiness and cruelty, all its kindness and greatness of spirit.
Who hasn’t suffered though the dreaded “ear worm” — a song or jingle that keeps repeating over and over again in your head? Collins describes it wonderfully, and takes us with him as he progresses through all its maddening stages — giving us a glimpse of an otherwise ordinary day in his life along the way.
MORE THAN A WOMAN
Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping
over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.
It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept
from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,
but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,
as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.
It played while I watered the plants
and continued when I brought in the mail
and fanned out the letters on a table.
It repeated itself when I took a walk
and watched from a bridge
brown leaves floating in the channels of a current.
Late in the afternoon it seemed to fade,
but I heard it again at the restaurant
when I peered at the lobsters
lying on the bottom of an illuminated
tank which was filled to the brim
with copious tears.
Dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times, Billy Collins, two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-03), has published many poetry collections, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning and Nine Horses: Poems. It was Questions About Angels, published in 1991, that put him in the literary spotlight.
Collins says his poetry is “suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that.” Here he reads poems from the viewpoints of two very different dogs. His dead-pan delivery reminds me of Bob Newhart. It’s easy to see why he’s a popular guest on National Public Radio programs:
‘Man’s Best Friend’ is a favored topic. This time, he begins with the annoying barking of his neighbor’s dog, and turns it on its head:
……….ANOTHER REASON WHY
I DON’T KEEP A GUN IN THE HOUSE
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.
When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton
while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.
This poem becomes more meaningful to me with each passing year:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Funny and heartbreaking, absolutely true — and if you live long enough, guaranteed to happen to you. But considering the alternative to growing old, best to accept it with some of Collins’ loving irony — after all, in the 21st Century, you can always find the capital of Paraguay or the date of that famous battle you’ve forgotten on the Internet, even in the middle of the night.
Sources and Further Reading
- “More Than a Woman” from Nine Horses: Poems, © 2002 by Billy Collins, Random House — http://poetry-park.blogspot.com/2011/09/more-than-woman.html
- “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” from Sailing Alone Around the Room, © 2001 by Billy Collins, Random House — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/another-reason-why-i-don-t-keep-a-gun-in-the-hou/
- “Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, © 1991 by Billy Collins, University of Pittsburgh Press— http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/forgetfulness/
The Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/billy-collins
Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College and founding advisory board member for CUNY Institute for Irish-American studies; Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida; member at the State University of New York-Stonybrook Southampton; poetry consultant for Smithsonian Magazine; faculty writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College; served as Literary Lion of the New York Public Library; US Poet Laureate, 2001-2003; New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006; has also taught at Columbia University; appears regularly on National Public Radio and was guest host for “The Writer’s Almanac,” June-August 2013.
- Pokerface,limited edition, Kenmore, 1977.
- Video Poems,Applezaba (Long Beach, CA), 1980.
- The Apple That Astonished Paris,University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1988.
- Questions about Angels,Morrow (New York, NY), 1991, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1999.
- The Art of Drowning,University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
- Picnic, Lightning,University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
- Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,Picador (London, England), 2000.
- Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems,Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
- Nine Horses: Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
- The Trouble with Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
- She was Just Seventeen (chapbook), Modern Haiku Press (Lincoln, IL), 2006.
- Ballistics, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.
- Horoscopes for the Dead, Random House (New York, NY), 2011.
- Aimless Love, Random House, 2013.
- (Contributor) The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
- (Editor) Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
- (Editor) 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
- (Editor) Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2009.
- Voyage (children’s book; illustrated by Karen Romagna), Bunker Hill Publishing (Boston, MA), 2014.
- ‘Dancing Queen’ Disco Costume
- Photograph of Billy Collins
- Barking Dog
- Blank Book
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud