Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Source of Lit: Billy Collins

I am coming late to poetry, as I near my 40th year, but boy am I glad I am coming to it at all. I just read American poet Billy Collins' 1998 collection, Picnic, Lightning, straight through, sitting here on the couch with a view of the Irish sea through the window. Billy Collins has visited Anam Cara several times, and he is often talked about, so I picked this off the shelf to see what the fuss was all about.

I have never laughed out loud while reading a poem.

Several times.

"Astonishing" is a word I might use. Plain, clear language, and a sense that the line breaks are absolutely the most natural thing in the world, that perhaps this is the way he thinks in his head, this is the way he - and maybe we - all talk. Natural, clean, clear, witty, wise, moving.

A poem about the Victoria's Secret catalogue, entitled Victoria's Secret. An excerpt:
And occupying the whole facing page
is one who displays that expression
we have come to associate with photographic beauty.
Yes, she is pouting about something,
all lower lip and cheekbone.
Perhaps her ice cream has tumbled
out of its cone onto the parquet floor.
Perhaps she has been waiting all day
for a new sofa to be delivered,
waiting all day in stretch lace hipster
with lattice edging, satin frog closures,
velvet scrollwork, cuffed ankles,
flare silhouette, and knotted shoulder straps
available in black, champagne, almond,
cinnabar, plum, bronze, mocha,
peach, ivory, caramel, blush, butter, rose, and periwinkle.
It is, of course, impossible to say,
impossible to know what she is thinking,
why her mouth is the shape of petulance.

And to contrast this with the poem My Life:
I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene.
I couldn't put the book down, I was mesmerized by the simple way Collins, who was US Poet Laureate from 2001-3, seemed to be just documenting his life, listening to jazz, writing, looking around him, and yet at the same time uncovering fundamentals and presenting them in a completely original and unique way.

I was particularly moved by his poem Lines Lost Among Trees, which is an elegy for the poem that came to him "while walking in the woods/with no pen/ and nothing to write on anyway":

They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic

I devised to hold them in place -

What writer doesn't know that feeling of having written something in her head, at night (as often happens to me, whole stories unfolding) and then, too lazy or tired to get up and write it down, hoping, hoping, that it is still there, in the morning or when you get back. But no, it's gone.

Reading his poems both demystifies poetry as something incomprehensible and high fallutin', and mystifies in the sense of inspiring awe at how he performs this magic using small words, words we know, strung together with such apparent ease. Oh, I know it's not easy, I know very well that these were not dashed off of an afternoon. But to make it look so. That is the art. That is the mark of astonishing talent. I am off to order some of his books myself. More on him here.


Chris said...

When I get to poetry in my "Introduction to Literature" class, I have have 25 worried faces. Those who are brave say they "don't get poetry." I tell them to be patient. I offer them a Billy Collins poem. They laugh. It's not so bad.

SueG said...

Well, now you've found my secret. Billy Collins is my hero and my muse. He was the one who gave me "permission" to write the sort of poetry write. And, of course, his connection to Anam Cara has given me endless hours of inspiriation. Welcome to the AC/BC Club (of which I think there are 3 members:-) )

Tania Hershman said...

Chris, how wonderful, I bet it opens them up to poetry in the best way!

Sue, I totally believe it. Did he give you permission personally or just by reading his work? Glad to be in the club - me, you and Sue B-F? Should we have T-shirts! Headed notepaper!

Nik Perring said...

Cool - I'll check him out. Not heard of him before so this could be an exciting discovery!

BarbaraS said...

I discovered Billy Collins last summer, when I saw him read in Ireland at the John Hewitt Summer School, with Seamus Heaney. I was lucky enough to hear his work before reading it, and I, of course, went and bought his books on the strength of what I heard. I was totally impressed! I blogged about it at the time, and I remember just how much the audience laughed at his work: his gentle humour carries everything along so well. He's a good poet to read.

Avril said...

I am also going to check him out. I have just started writing poetry as well as prose - but don't quite know if I can really call it poetry yet - so new poets are a great find for me - thanks

I was very interested in your Orange Prize award evening story - I have an Orange Prize story that is also very disappointing - it concerns the judging process - I was in the comapny of one of last years judges who was very dismissive of certain o fthe novels on the short list and then indicated she had not really read all of them!! Maybe I or my colleague who was involved will blog that one!


Tania Hershman said...

Nik - you must!

Barbara, your blog post is great, it must have been astonishing, both of them, I cant even imagine!

Tania Hershman said...

Avril, I am right there with you re not sure if I can call it poetry, but do it anyway. Interesting to hear about your Orange Prize story, I find that shocking but perhaps we are naive? When the main judge made that comment about enjoying the longlist and calling them all " first novels" perhaps I should have wondered about what she actually did read and what she didn't! Or perhaps she likes to call short story collections "novels", maybe she's coining a new term :) Ah, cynical, moi?

Avril said...

Perhaps we were naive but fast becoming cynical! I guess the only thing to do is carry on with the writing - that and the support of other writers is what really counts.


Tania Hershman said...

Avril, exactly. We musn't look too much for external validation from those who don't really enjoy what it is we want to do. That is doomed from the start!