Posts filed under ‘Billy Collins’
It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.
It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.
Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.
I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.
I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
The Thesaurus – for any lover of words and poetry. And for others, you will never look at the Thesaurus the same way again. Billy Collins’ poetry is limpid humour and irony mixed with real human experience and emotion. Every poem is an experience, a passion for words, jazz, cigarettes, jotting notes on the margin, or perhaps, taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. :)
The entire audio CD is available for download here. Upload all 34 poems on to your iPod, burn a CD and now, Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,/it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,/ it will be lurking in some obscure corner of your iPod. * :)
“Poetry is my cheap means of transportation, … by the end of the poem the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him off in a cornfield.” – Billy Collins
He used to frighten me in the nights of childhood,
the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft.
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness.
But tonight as I drive home over these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
and rising again to show his familiar face.
And when he comes into full view over open fields
he looks like a young man who has fallen in love
with the dark earth,
a pale bachelor, well-groomed and full of melancholy,
his round mouth open
as if he had just broken into song.
And while we’re about it, we might as well do some more Collins. This one’s simplicity itself, but if you’ve ever driven down a dark highway and watched a yellow full moon rise up on your left, you know exactly what Collins is talking about.
There’s the one where you scrunch
your features into a look of pained concentration,
every riff a new source of agony,
and there’s the look of existential bemusement
eyebrows lifted, chin upheld by a thumb,
maybe a swizzle stick oscillating in the free hand.
And, of course, for ballads,
you have the languorous droop,
her eyes half-closed, lips slightly parted,
the head lolling back, flower on a stem,
exposing plenty of turtleneck.
There’s the everything-but-the-instrument look
on the follow at the front table,
the one poised to mount the bandstand,
and the classic crazy-man-crazy face,
where the fixed grin joins the menacing stare,
especially suitable for long drum solos.
And let us not overlook the empathetic
grimace of the listener
who has somehow located the body
of cold rage dammed up behind the playing
and immersed himself deeply in it.
As far as my own jazz face goes –
and don’t tell me you don’t have one –
it hasn’t changed that much
since its debut in 1957.
It’s nothing special, easy enough to spot
in a corner of any club on any given night.
You know it, – the reptilian squint,
lips pursed, jaw clenched tight,
and, most essential, the whole
head furiously, yet almost imperceptibly
in total and absolute agreement.
Collins does it again. Takes something ordinary and everyday, something that’s part of our lived experience and makes it come vividly alive on the page. Reading this poem is like looking around a smoky nightclub, watching the people at the other tables get into the music. The words themselves are a kind of jazz, a series of riffs casually tossed off but exquisitely beautiful, that leave you “nodding / in total and absolute agreement”.
P.S. So what does your jazz face look like?
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
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.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
Hatshepsut says, “I’d recorded this a while ago but never thought to send it in. Strangely I had never noticed that there was no Collins on pō’ĭ-trē, which is monstrously unpardonable, given that I think he is a genius and love him with much ferocity. I was galvanized into action when you pointed it out though.
I tend to blow hot and cold with most poets, liking certain poems or phases of their creative development distinctly more than others. I confess to liking Collins rather indiscriminately – he has such range that man, and I like the sound of all his voices. “Litany” especially is chockfull of lines I like to quote in just about any context (Try for example “There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.”) Also ever since I read that poem, I’ve thought of myself as a blind woman’s tea-cup. It’s one of those thoughts I have not been able to shake out of my head.
Anyway I digress. I love Marginalia for many of the reasons I love Collins: a felicity for graphic description (I especially love the word-picture of Irish monks scribbling in their cold scriptoria), a perverse humour and moments of unexpected tenderness and bitten-back pain. My favorite line from this one has to be about the memory that “dangles from me like a locket”. Just gorgeous.”
* Collins reading Marginalia here. (thx! Hatshepsut.)
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.
Call it video poetry. How can you not love a poet who writes poems as lovely as this one and is also tech-savvy enough to be on YouTube? Personally, the video I’m waiting for is the one with him taking off Emily Dickinson’s clothes.
P.s. This is the first Collins poem on Poi-tre – an oversight I plan to shortly overcompensate for, by posting a whole slew of the man’s work. Keep watc…errr…listening?