Poetry Tutorial – Week Two

Ok, I’m skipping ahead to some non-rhyming poetry this week, in honor of Billy Collins’ visit to Seattle today. My editor at Seattle Met had asked if I could interview him this week, but alas, I opted instead to visit the parents in southern Cal. So my new dear friend O. will be meeting and interviewing the former poet laureate. I will be dragged to the La Brea tar pits today with the family instead. Let’s just say I am awash in jealousy, but as O. is a better writer than I, all is as it should be. My parents were not at all appreciative of my sacrifice. They are huge fans of Mr. Collins, and the news that I could have stayed in Seattle and done the interview was met with, “Are you crazy? What are you doing here? Is it too late? Can you go back now?” Yeah, thanks for the love, folks.

Billy Collins has often been called “accessible,” a term the poet himself dislikes. (He prefers “hospitable.”) Accessible implies that most readers are poetically handicapped.  While I see his point, accessible is probably more accurate. His poems are a nice gently ramp with a sturdy handrail for the those who have trouble walking the poetry path. It’s hard not to like him. His poems are witty and fun and oh-so-relatable. But he’s not a comic poet or a kids’ favorite (the 3-year-old reading his poems on YouTube notwithstanding). He takes common subjects and gives them a poetic treatment, with his clever voice coming though, coupled with an elegant yet light polish of the English language. Insomnia, air travel, a painting, a visit to a museum – even a lovely meal of osso bucco – have all been distilled thoughtfully and beautifully into a picture of words and feelings. Here’s one I love:

Nightclub

You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

Collins isn’t the master of rhythm like some other modern poets. But he’s not without it either. Rhythm can get you past the non-rhyming bits to resonate in your head. Here, he used repetition of certain words as a musical phrasing. Each time you hear “foolish” and “beautiful” (you were reading it out loud, right?), the brain says, “Yes!” or “Ahh…” The words are the notes. And who can’t love describing a saxophone as a “golden fish?” I’ll never see another without thinking this.

My dear friend Natalie, who is a serious poet, complete with MFA and encyclopedic knowledge of all poets, scoffs at Collins. (She writes gorgeous, enigmatic poems, reminiscent of Garcia Lorca on acid). Her views are common in the upper ether of the poetry ranks. We were discussing him once when we were at a writers’ residency together. “Billy Collins, Hil?” she said, as we cracked open PBR tallboys at 10:30 in the morning on our snow-covered deck. “That shit’s too easy.” (Side note: we had a GREAT time at that artist retreat.) Ah, the highbrow academics may sneer, but you can’t deny the guy’s got style.

Finally, for my friend L., who said she didn’t get poetry, here’s what Mr. Collins says.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I wish I were in Seattle tonight to hear Collins. He’s reading to a sold-out crowd at Town Hall. A pure delight for those willing to brave the snow. Enjoy, O.!

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  1. #1 by Olivia on November 24, 2010 - 12:54 am

    I adore this post. And your blog in general. Also, I am SO not a better writer than you are. Totally, completely, absolutely not.

  2. #2 by poetintraining on November 24, 2010 - 8:30 pm

    Ok, here’s my problem – and it’s definitely MY problem. Non-rhyming poetry gives me the same anxious feeling that reading a medical journal does (and I do that bloody task ALL the time, so I’m well-versed) . I feel like I need a healthy dose of Ritalin to take it all in. Like I have to pay attention to every single word, and how every single word relates to every single other word, and then how each line relates not only to the line above and below, but to the entire poem. I get all neurotic: forest…trees?…forest…trees? Can’t decide. So I think I’ll just stick with the rhyming stuff till I can disengage my frontal cortex (or maybe engage my limbic system? that’s up for debate. leave it to me to turn a poetry lesson into a neuroscience discussion.). In the meantime, keep my lessons coming!

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