Tag Archives: Billy Collins

June 13, 2013: SNOW DAY (Billy Collins)

Dear readers,

I hope some of you didn’t find that stool pulled out from under you last week when I once again failed to show up for work. Continuing, to the third leg:

What rankles me the most about Yezzi’s position, as encapsulated in the Sullivan piece, is that it takes us out of it. As we’ve discussed many times in this group, a poem is kind of a thing-not-thing. It’s lines on a paper, it might be a historical artifact, but it exists most richly in some kind of indefinable space between the paper and the reader. And for me to read what may be a quite staid, even a thematically banal, poem in the context of a world that Yezzi says challenges the very foundations of this “condescending sop,” and to not then turn that challenging world onto the poem… well then, perhaps I, in my own banality, have failed. Now: this is not to say that every poem can just be sort of bad and boring, and I must “make it good.” No, it is to say that there are good poems on all types of topic, and within all emotional registers, and if a poem is good, it will typically open itself to the world, even if just a little. A good poem has to have a little richness, a little nuance, a little subtext, a little rhythmic refraction that snaps the reader into its take on things–even boring things. A bad poem, well, as Helen Vendler has said, a bad poem just fails to become a poem.

So let’s look back at the Billy Collins poem (I reprint it after the sign-off, for anyone who wants to refresh themselves). I hope you all agree that it’s a decent example of what Yezzi rails against. And yeah, one could take issue with it, and with another hundred or so of Billy Collins’ poems, by saying that, shoot, it’s not that challenging, these are ruminations I’m inclined to, it’s just that I’m not a clever poet, no one cares about school closings, school closings pale in comparison to other stuff on the news channel, funny descriptions of dogs do not BIG IDEAS make. Well, all those things are tru–no, I can’t say it. All those things are not true.

His description of a dog is a big idea. Look back: “I will put on some boots/ and step out like someone walking through water,/ and the dog will porpoise through the drifts.” Did he really just say that? The dog will “porpoise.” That’s crazy. Did anyone else stop at that word? I stopped, briefly, because it made me shake my head in astonishment, but then I continued, quickly, because the verb made perfect sense there. One of the poet’s jobs–perhaps the most elementary–is description, and Collins nails it there, and in a unique way. I’ve certainly never seen porpoise used as a verb before. His choice performs 2 magic tricks: cross-species description ( a metaphor, I guess), and noun-into-verb. And it works not only in this poem; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see a dog playing in the snow again without thinking “porpoise.” In that tiny instance, and in instances going forward, the poet has used language in a way that changes the way I look at the world. That’s a big thing, not a small thing. And it’s still just plain funny.

Then I look at the list of schools that lulled Dalia into somnolence. I really liked it, right away. I thought the names of the schools were purposefully precious, kind of like baby-talk, and I found the cumulative effect hilarious. But of course that’s just taste, and one could like it or not like it. Looking back, though, it is kind of strange–what is that full 2-stanza list doing in an 8-stanza poem? People sometimes wonder that about the “catalogue of ships” in Homer’s Iliad, which appears in Book 2, and believe me, is way more tedious than the list of school closings. I’m no expert on the catalogue of ships, but I remember it playing sort of a historical or persepectival function: THIS is how many armies are fighting, and this is how far the reach of the conflict. It’s also just a tried-and-true epic trope, and Virgil and Milton adopted it, too. So why not Collins? He’s playing around a little bit, I suspect, but the joke goes perfectly with the martial theme he sets up at the beginning (a “revolution” of snow) and draws to a clever close (“which small queen is about to be brought down”). The theme is not really all that insistent, I see it in the opening, the catalogue, and the closing, and there are little snippets of vocabulary throughout that keep it alive. But he’s also copied Homer’s paratactic style in stanzas 2, 5, & 6, and somewhere off in my memory is the idea that Homer described the mustering Greek armies as a blanket of snow later on in The Iliad.

So this poem is for nerds, sure, but the point is, there’s a lot there. And some of it is in the in-between, in the wolrd the reader brings to the poem. Rather than being crabbed in worldview, it’s actually epic in scope, while coming from a limited, commonplace point of view. It succeeds in doing what a poem should do, perhaps despite its subject matter or point of view. It would be easy to write a terrible, cliched poem on the same subject. David Yezzi would hate that poem. He’d be right to. But he’d hate it because it’s a bad poem, not because it’s symptomatic of some failure of contemporary poetry to engage with the real world. Bad poems should make everyone mad.

I’ve left large swaths of “Snow Day” untouched. I’m curious to know what other readers find exciting or disappointing there. I’m curious to know if I’ve missed Yezzi’s point–which is certainly possible. -ed.

SNOW DAY

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,

and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost

under the noiseless drift,

the paths of trains softly blocked,

the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots

and step out like someone walking in water,

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,

and I will shake a laden branch

sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.

I will make a pot of tea

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,

as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,

the Ding-Dong School, closed.

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,

along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,

Little Sparrows Nursery School,

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,

and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,

These are the nests where they letter and draw,

where they put on their bright miniature jackets,

all darting and climbing and sliding,

all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.

-2001

Advertisements

Apr. 29, 2013: SNOW DAY (Billy Collins)

My train of formal thought was interrupted by a reader’s comment, so let’s run with it. Formal verse will always be there.

2 weeks back our own Rich Murphy re-posted a withering appraisal of “contemporary poetry” that he found on an Andrew Sullivan blog. Let’s look back:

David Yezzi provides

a searing critique of what he claims is the shallow optimism of contemporary poetry:

The spectrum of subjects for poetry should be as broad as the spectrum of human emotions, which is not to say that all emotions are equally admirable, only that we exclude consideration of them at our peril.

How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.

Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.

I want to attack this reading, and it seems to me there are many ways to do so. For one, he could be flat-out wrong about the content of “contemporary poetry.” Or, he could be right about its content, but wrong in his opinion that such content is necessarily impoverished. Or, he could have a perspective problem: he notices the content and rages against it only because of some kind of projection, finding disagreeable only what’s disagreeable within himself. Or, the fault in his critique could lie in its hyperbole: the poems “lie,” the world they envision is “excruciating,” the poetry is a “condescending sop.”

I’m going to choose option one–that virtually every sentence he writes is demonstrably false–but I’m going to pick up my hammer next week. For now, and in the interest of conversation, I think it’s fairest to try to understand what he’s talking about. And let’s be honest: he’s talking about Billy Collins.

I like Billy Collins. Many readers of this forum like Billy Collins. Many readers across the country like Billy Collins–way more than like any other “contemporary poet.” There’s probably a quasi-intellectual backlash against Billy Collins; I don’t know. There was one phrase Yezzi used that I like a lot, “the winsome ode to the suburban soul.” It may be that Collins does that as well as any American poet. He might even gladly wear the mantle. Here’s one that I hadn’t seen before, that I think illustrates what we’re talking about. Does this burn your britches? -ed.

SNOW DAY

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,

and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost

under the noiseless drift,

the paths of trains softly blocked,

the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots

and step out like someone walking in water,

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,

and I will shake a laden branch

sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.

I will make a pot of tea

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,

as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,

the Ding-Dong School, closed.

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,

along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,

Little Sparrows Nursery School,

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,

and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,

These are the nests where they letter and draw,

where they put on their bright miniature jackets,

all darting and climbing and sliding,

all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.

-2001

July 23, 2012 On Turning Ten

Dear Readers,

Most of the poetry your humble guest editor reads these days is of the nursery rhyme variety, so you will forgive me if I have selected a simple poem that takes childhood as its subject.

There is another, more important reason for selecting “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins: I have a very dear memory of sharing it with a friend, the very friend whose wedding this past weekend led me here to my Gmail and my keyboard this morning.

Much like a summer pop song, for me this poem’s appeal lies almost entirely with the “hook” at the end. What are your thoughts? Does the poem earn those beautiful final sentences?

Billy Collins needs no introduction, and I will only remind you that this selection comes from his fourth book of poetry, Picnic, Lightning, the title of which deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award in book naming.

Best,
Stephanie

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel

like I’m coming down with something,

something worse than any stomach ache

or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–

a kind of measles of the spirit,

a mumps of the psyche,

a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

 

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,

but that is because you have forgotten

the perfect simplicity of being one

and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.

At four I was an Arabian wizard.

I could make myself invisible

by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.

At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

 

But now I am mostly at the window

watching the late afternoon light.

Back then it never fell so solemnly

against the side of my tree house,

and my bicycle never leaned against the garage

as it does today,

all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

 

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,

as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.

It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,

time to turn the first big number.

 

It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I could shine.

But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,

I skin my knees. I bleed.

Jan. 3, 2011: THE HISTORY TEACHER (Billy Collins)

Dear members/readers:

thanks LB for the enlightenment. Sure, you just had time to “muse,”
and with your musing dropped more knowledge about medieval monks than
the rest of us knew, collectively. “[T]he speaker gives both places,
as different as they are, the same possibility for opening his mind to
the eternal”: Yup, that sounds like Mr. Heaney, and he’ll use any
image he can to get there.

Now, with my new-found powers of brazen solicitation, I’m wondering if
anyone named Adam in the Chicagoland area has words of wisdom–or just
musings–about Billy Collins’s “The History Teacher?”

Happy new year,

mjl

THE HISTORY TEACHER

Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Monday’s Verse 2-25-08

Literati,

Billy Collins has been called many things. Easy. Pretty. Playful. Glib. Sensitive. Funny but cloying. But you know my first wife was called all those things, too, and we got on pretty well. So I give the former Poet Laureate the benefit of the doubt. And it should be said–I’ve taught the man, and seen the man talk, and he speaks well to beginning poetry students. Not an insignificant thing.

Recently though I came across this new one that struck me as one of his most accomplished pieces. Collins is perfect for our forum because he does lyric poetry and very little else. He tends to talk about the real world but not in that nature poet kind of way. He eschews big moments, big technique, and big words. There’s a lot of “peace” in his poems, providing for many people what they actually seek from poetry. And every once in a while there’s a koan-esque element to a poem that provides a neat wrapping for his theme, without robbing it of its mystery. Never has he accomplished that feat as gracefully as he does here, I submit. Underneath all this IS a big idea about history and time, and Collins craftily does use traditional techniques to push his ideas forward. Examples? -ed.

THE FUTURE

When I finally arrive there—
and it will take many days and nights—
I would like to believe others will be waiting
and might even want to know how it was.

So I will reminisce about a particular sky
or a woman in a white bathrobe
or the time I visited a narrow strait
where a famous naval battle had taken place.

Then I will spread out on a table
a large map of my world
and explain to the people of the future
in their pale garments what it was like—

how mountains rose between the valleys
and this was called geography,
how boats loaded with cargo plied the rivers
and this was known as commerce,

how the people from this pink area
crossed over into this light-green area
and set fires and killed whoever they found
and this was called history—

and they will listen, mild-eyed and silent,
as more of them arrive to join the circle
like ripples moving toward,
not away from, a stone tossed into a pond.

-2008

Monday’s Verse 11-29-07

Hey kids!

I’m sorry about this week’s poem or lack thereof, and I’ve got a big
ol’ nasty final this coming Monday, and, heck, probably one the next,
too, haven’t even thought that far in advance. Therefore let this
tender morsel suffice until we meet again. I found it in the food
section of the Times, of all things!

We all know Billy Collins. You may also remember that one of his
heroes, Elizabeth Bishop wrote a well-anthologized poem by the same
title. But it would take more of a scholar of American modernism than
I am to explain any harmonics there.

Me, I’m not really all that big on this poem. I think it rings several
false notes–the pathetic fallacy for one. Y’all remember that?
Anyway, I do love Pittsburgh though.

Best,

Matthew

THE FISH

As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too —
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.