Since in April I only read poetry, or books about poetry, I've got a feeling there'll be tons of book notes about poetry popping up on my blog. And as I am certain that my blog readers wait with bated breath for my book notes, AND you all love poetry too, there is a general cheer going around the blogosphere right about now, correct? ;) Here's my first one.
Ballistics by Billy Collins
The poet Billy Collins is officially on my List of Writers I'd Like to Meet. (Not that I have, in reality, written down this list. But if I did, not everyone I like reading would show up there, for varying reasons.) (Who's on your list?) Of course, the few times I have meet authors on my imaginary WILtM list have been sort of disasters. Like the memorable day when I met Margaret Atwood, and I told her it was her fault I became an English teacher, and we talked about English teachers in general and one specific one that left an impression on her, but the whole time I was thinking she's got to be wondering exactly how my reading an excerpt of Cat's Eye in eleventh grade turned me into a teacher, and really it's my eleventh-grade English teacher's fault because I never would have found Cat's Eye had it not been for Mrs. Simmons, and surely someone as astute as Margaret Atwood can see my faulty logic and knows that my proclamation---like the first sentence of an essay, constructed with the goal of hooking the reader---was simply a good way to get her attention and actually spend a few minutes talking to her while the rest of the line behind us rustled impatiently. OK, maybe not a disaster, but not the immediate friendship I hoped would develop. (Because, yeah, I know, writers totally make friends with the people who come to their readings. Happens all the time.) Or the time I listened to the poet X. J. Kennedy talk in an intimate group of only ten people, and how when he spoke about all families having their poet laureate, or how they used to, and the way poetry is declining in the eyes of the general public, I wanted to hug him but knew it would be highly undignified to his very dignified grandfatherly self, and then when he opened it up for questions I couldn't think of anything to ask. "Do you know how much I love your anthologies?" isn't really a question he could really answer. So if I did meet Billy Collins, I'm sure I'd either be struck dumb or say something dumb.
But it would still be cool to meet him.
What I would want him to know but be unable to say is how much I appreciate his poems for their ability to be simultaneously accessible (meaning you don't have to know the entire history of everything in order to understand them, nor even aspire to impossible erudition of the English language) and yet, still, intelligent/thoughtful/full-of-that-double-meaning-thing that good poems have. I would discuss the limits of language, and how the word I want to describe his work with---delightful---is so pallid and wrong and yet, at the same time, exactly right. I would tell him that every once in a random while, some image or other from "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" pops into my mind. That's the sort of impact his poems have on you. You start with one---just open to any one of them---and start reading, and you fall right into the poem; when you come out again, some little essence of the poem or of the poet himself still clinging to you. It'll never stop clinging, and you'll think about the poem at unexpected moments. He manages to get the everyday details of life, the little objects and times, into his poems, but in a way that makes you laugh, or stop to realize: although I have never thought of it that way, the poem gets it exactly right.
In a sense, though, his newest book, Ballistics, was just the tiniest bit of dissapointing to me. Not because he doesn't do all the magic he did in his previous poems---he does. But because I wanted the magic to be bigger. I wanted it to be the new Billy Collins book: the Collins-esqueness, but newer. Which isn't to say I didn't love the poems. As I read, I tried to decide which one was my favorite---which had left the strongest impression. I wanted it to be "What Love Does," because it is a non-mushy love poem, a little bit edgy, even: "It turns everything into a symbol" and "it may add sparkle to a morning," lines that are almost mushy, but not quite, that build to the unexpected point: "but mostly it comes and goes. . .it will arrive like an archangel/through an iron gate no one ever seemed to notice before." Or maybe "The Effort," which runs along the lines of "Introduction to Poetry," how misguided some attempts at reading poetry are. "The Effort" pokes at the perrennial "What is the poet trying to say?" question that pops up in English classes. (I love poems set in English classes!) "As if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson/had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts---/inarticulate wretches that they were." I especially like the last line: "and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed." When I finished it, though, I couldn't really pick a favorite. So I'm ending with this poem, which is neither grandoise nor particularly poetic in the traditional ideal:
Oh, My God!
Not on in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.
Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.
Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.
But still satisfying, still with that particular Collins-esque zing. I think I love this one so much because it bothers me how often people say "Oh, My God!" Maybe that sounds churlish but instead it goes to the power of language itself. Remember playing with words, saying one over and over and over, until its very sound became something foreign, its meaning a pile of dust? That happens in a broader sense to phrases that everyone uses, all the time, and there are some phrases whose meaning I'd like to keep. But here, like he always does, he turns the idea upside down, making the "Oh, My God!" squeal into something that isn't meaningless, but a prayer. Of course, he's also being sarcastic. Still, when I hear the phrase squealed in a girlish voice in the mall, I will stop to think a bit about how miracles are everywhere, and how maybe those girls are able to see it better than I am. In the end, that's exactly what I go back to poetry for: it helps me see things better than I did before.