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Little rave: Billy Collins

I am a noob, a tard, a dork, and several other terms for "ignorant beginner" when it comes to poetry. I was totally lost when we read T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in college. ("That was about abortion? Huh? How? ...Ohhh. OK, I see now. I guess.") (However, I did memorize those few lines about April being the cruellest month, because I liked them.)

So it rather surprised me when I found I actually "get" and enjoy the poetry of Billy Collins, an actual former Poet Laureate of the U.S. My sister Kate gave me a CD of him reading some of his stuff, and it tickled my fancy enough to make me look up more. I think what I like best is that he is good at poking gentle fun at poetry itself. In that vein, I share with you now...

Litany, by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

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.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of 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.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.


He had me at "There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air."

If you want more, there are a bunch posted here. I also recommend Marginalia, a poem about writing stuff in margins. It contains the great stanza:

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
Goodnight, and happy spring equinox!


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 21st, 2006 05:39 am (UTC)
Billy Collins is teh awesome. I think "Marginalia" was my first Collins poem, and after that, there was just no going back. He is one of the few free verse poets that I consistently love. I like some Elizabeth Bishop, and I frequently like pieces of Wislawa Szymborska poems, though her full poems often leave me thinking she should have quit while she was ahead and just stopped writing about halfway through. That's pretty much it for my "it doesn't rhyme but it's still dang cool" category.

All hail Mr. Collins!

Hee hee. Mr. Collins. Shelves in the closet!
Mar. 21st, 2006 03:43 pm (UTC)
Shelves ... in the ... closet. What an ... interesting idea.

Although, to be fair, it wasn't Mr. Collins' fault, but rather the Lady Catherine de Bourg's

Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
Free verse does seem to be "cheating" to some degree, in my mind. I mean,
Couldn't I take
Any normal piece of prose,
Rearrange the lines,
And come up with what is, somehow, art?

But that said, I'd still like his poems even if they were pieces of ultra-short prose.

Billy Collins should write one about Mr. Collins. That would rock.
Mar. 21st, 2006 07:18 am (UTC)
I don't know anything about modern poetry, but I really, really like Billy Collins. I love the one you posted. My favourite (not that I've read all that many) is The Afterlife; have you read it? I force it onto anyone who tries discussing life-after-death with me.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:58 am (UTC)
Hmm, no, haven't read The Afterlife. Must see if I can find it!
Mar. 21st, 2006 12:57 pm (UTC)
He had me at "There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air."

OMG, me, too!

Thanks for the rec! And just for the record, I NEVER could get T.S. Eliot, even when it was explained to me. I was like, but how do we know that it was about abortion? (I had to read that poem in high school) With same success, it could be about environmental changes or even organized labor - it seemed to me... But then, I'm not so good with allegories unless they are pretty blatant.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
Well, I think in general it was about Europe being devastated after WWI, so it could be all those things. :) But, yes...it is a particularly difficult poem, and one of our class discussions was about whether that was fair. I, too, need things to be a little more transparent. Not smack-over-the-head-with-obvious-symbolism, but not leaving me totally lost either.
Mar. 21st, 2006 01:00 pm (UTC)
John Hegley, he's quite good.
Mar. 21st, 2006 01:06 pm (UTC)
Another thought, if you consider songs as poems with tunes, you might find some lyrics better than some poems, mind you, I'm sure there are far worse examples out there too.

I forgot to add this earlier... http://www.johnhegley.co.uk/networds/index.htm

Oh another thought... the worst poetry ever courtesy of the long dead, William McGonagall http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:02 am (UTC)
True on the songs. As such, I always found "Birdhouse in Your Soul" to be a very good poem, really. Easily the most clever connection between nightlights and lighthouses I've ever read. ;)
Mar. 21st, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
I often use "Marginalia" as part of my course syllabus for IB English 11. Essentially, the class focues on critical analysis and I teach students to write all over their texts in order to compose critical analysis such as "Victor Frankenstein and Nietzschian Morality", "The Quest for the Unattainable in Frankenstein" or "The Monster, Martyrdom and Lockean Empiricism" (seriously, those are the titles of three papers on my desk as I type this). The kids at school have coined a term for being overly-analytical: "Wilting" (or variations thereof). For example, they had to read The Jungle for their history class and students told me that another student "had totally Wilted his oral commentary". My lot is life is viewing literature as this great mystery or puzzle that one connects together with distinct critical approaches in order to attain justifiable "purpose" or meaning--however seemingly nebulous it may be.

I also teach T.S. Eliot at the beginning of the year. The students know that I am a freak when it comes to Eliot and that I love "The Hollow Men" -- to annoy me they always make connections back to poem. We'll be discussing a novel and someone will ultimately say something like "Kurtz, obviously, is hollow" *wink* *wink*.

Anyhoo... I'm just a big dork :)
Mar. 21st, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
Yay for IB English teachers! I have fond memories of my IB English 12 teacher who preferred to use modern independent film as a means of teaching students to rip a piece of literature (or film for that matter) to shreds, and then reconstruct it.

Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:08 am (UTC)
Finally, kids who will graduate high school being able to write papers adequate for college. Those look like subject matter and paper titles from my freshman year class at the U of Oregon Honors College.

It's odd about Eliot...I like him even though I seldom know exactly what is going on. And hey, any lit that evokes a meaningful and positive reaction in a reader must have been worth writing. I kept 'The Waste Land' after the class, and it's funny, now that I take it down from the shelf to look at it: the former owner, obviously another college student, had written in the margins in quite the way Collins describes. Samples: "Sense of questioning leading to overwhelming question of being." "Frustration and desire." "Introspective." "Regeneration." "Infertility. Impotence."

Mar. 21st, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
...it was about abortion? My high-school teacher never explained that. Perhaps it might have made more sense then--I'll have to re-read it and see. I still cherish a secret undying passion for the "Love Song".

And I love this one you've posted. I'll have to look at the links you gave. I get the coolest stuff from you and kalquessa...(and numerous others on the flist, of course)
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:09 am (UTC)
I do like Eliot's use of language even when I'm confused. And I think only one particular part was about abortion; overall it was about Europe's post-war depression stuff. Or something. :)
Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
Who says "The Waste Land" is about abortion? I never came upon that interpretation, and I wrote a paper on the poem for a Pound and Eliot seminar in college. Of course, that was 25 years ago, and theories of interpretation do go in and out of fashion....
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:10 am (UTC)
As far as I recall, it's just one bit that's about abortion--the "hurry up please it's time" conversation part. Granted, I was 17 in that class, and I'm 30 now, and haven't studied it since, so... yeah, do the math. :)
Mar. 27th, 2006 01:45 am (UTC)
Hey, I got around to looking up The Waste Land in my old Collected Poems of TS Eliot.

"Hurry up please, it's time" is the phrase used by bartenders in England to hurry customers out of the pub before closing time. It's repeated during a conversation between two women, who presumably are sitting in the pub late at night.

One of the women, who has no teeth even though she's pre-menopausal, and who "nearly died with the last one" (last baby), says -- among other things -- that she hasn't been in good health since she took some pills to abort another pregnancy.

My note in the book says "quack remedies". She got the pills from the drugstore, not from a doctor, and there weren't any really safe, reliable pharmaceutical means of abortion then, so this would have been something dubious that she took.

Her friend suggests that she just get her husband to "leave her alone", or else just put up with the pregnancies. "What you get married for if you don't want children?" (Love doesn't have anything to do with it.)

All the time they're discussing this, the bartender is trying to get them to finish drinking and go home.

It's a sad, sordid sort of little conversation, illustrative of the "waste land" of modern life as Eliot saw it.

The poem as a whole is not about abortion; but I think I misunderstood what you wrote earlier. Yeah, during the "hurry up please it's time" part, the pills she takes are an attempt at an abortion, and that's what you remembered.

One thing I noticed is that Eliot is a lot more pretentious than I remembered him being!
Mar. 24th, 2006 06:22 am (UTC)
Have you ever read any Neal Bowers? Most of his poems are about death, but my favorite is 'Problem' (which is not about death). He also wrote Words for the Taking which I really liked. It's all about how he was tracking down someone who was plagiarizing his poems.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )