I just learned from my daughter’s 1st grade teacher that April is National Poetry Month. Which is perfect because I’ve been wondering when was a good time to share with you the poetry of Billy Collins. Billy Collins was U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. I like his poetry mostly for one big reason: I can understand a good deal of it.
I always wanted to be the kind of person that liked poetry, but I hated the fact that so much of it seemed unaccessible to me. (I majored in Humanities with an English emphasis–I’ve seen a lot of poetry. I should “get” it.) Refreshingly, Billy Collins writes just like a normal person might talk, except there’s a bit more thought and reflection involved. Anyway, here are just a few of his poems that I particularly like. Sorry, I may go on too long, it’s hard to choose. But if you have a poem or poet that you enjoy, I’d love to hear about it.
This is the first poem of his I ever read, and I’ve liked it ever since. Now I know it is probably rare for many of you, as it is for me, to go to an appointment and sit alone (I don’t mean without other people, I mean without one of your offspring) in the waiting room in peace. We might go back to the house for the diaper bag, but probably not a book, unless it’s a picture book. But still I remember the days, and there are times I do go childless . . .
I Go Back to the House for a Book
I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor’s office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.
Sometimes I think I see him
a few people in front of me on a line
or getting up from a table
to leave the restaurant just before I do,
slipping into his coat on the way out the door.
But there is no catching him,
no way to slow him down
and put us back in synch,
unless one day he decides to go back
to the house for something,
but I cannot imagine
for the life of me what that might be.
He is out there always before me,
blazing my trail, invisible scout,
hound that pulls me along,
shade I am doomed to follow,
my perfect double,
only bumped an inch into the future,
and not nearly as well-versed as I
in the love poems of Ovid—
I who went back to the house
that fateful winter morning and got the book.
And here’s something for Mother’s Day next month. I love hearing a grown man admit what I hope my children will some day recognize. (It also gives me a little high because I recognize his allusion to the French novelist Marcel Proust. I actually read that whole leviathan of a book in college and know about the cookie he’s referring to–see education does pay off.)
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
I may be the “old” lady on this blog, and yet relatively young compared to many, but regardless of age, I can’t remember for the life of me so many things I used to enjoy knowing!
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.
I guess we do have a neighbor dog that barks a lot. We don’t hear it much from inside the house, so it’s not really that fact that makes me like this poem. It’s that I can so clearly imagine the incessant barking as I read this poem, and I love how it works itself into the piece. And the title.
Another Reason Why I don’t Keep A Gun In The House
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.
When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton
while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.
And like many of his poems, this one also makes me smile–having been through so many classes where we tried to analyze poetry. Then trying to read it as an adult to actually derive personal enlightenment from it. Now I share it with my teenagers moaning through poetry in school. Billy Collins was also a poetry teacher, it helps to know.
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 waterski
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.