Billy Collins speaks to me

Poet Billy Collins at the Union Square Barnes ...

Poet Billy Collins at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

April arrived with a call to poetry. Blog challenges, publishing tweets and literary websites all called me to read and/or write poetry. Drat. I like a good reading challenge as much as the next blogger, but poetry?

Could I get by with reading Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss to my kids? Somehow that didn’t seem in the spirit of things, so I decided to just skip it. I have enough prose literature to get through April as it is.

But this week, while browsing at the bookstore, I saw some bargain poetry anthologies. At $2 apiece, I felt like the reading gods were urging me to overcome this intellectual hurdle. I grabbed two. Then, as I made my way to the register, I noticed Billy Collins latest collection staring out from the corner of the display. Here was a name I knew.

My husband reads Collins regularly. My mom quotes him often. I have even posted video clips of him reading his own work. What I had never done was sit down and read his work on my own. Still hesitant to buy a book of poetry, I decided to make it a gift for my husband.

Well, he still has not taken possession of the book. Instead, Billy Collins has taken a hold of me. Is all poetry this good, this comforting, this beautiful? This man has offered me a glimpse inside his soul, and I’m comfortable there.

In HOROSCOPES FOR THE DEAD, Collins is writing about the everyday – birds chirping, abandoned chairs, mattress shopping. The poems are short, easily digested. He makes his poetry feel like an extension of easy conversation. The beauty shines through the simplest ideas.

So it is not until I leave the house

and walk three times around this hidden lake

that the poem begins to show

any interest in walking by my side.           — “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne”

He tackles big issues, love and mortality, too. But, even these he breaks down to their simplest parts.

what life would be like as one of your ribs –

to be with you all the time,

rising under your blouse and skin,

caged under the soft weight of your breasts

 

your favorite rib, I am assuming,

if you ever bothered to stop and count them

 

which is just what I did later that night

after you had fallen asleep

and we were fitted tightly back to front,

your long legs against the length of mine,

my fingers doing the crazy numbering that comes with love.  — “Genesis”

I began reading and didn’t want to stop. But I did. I stopped often to read passages out loud. I stopped to copy entire passages. I stopped to let some of his beautiful words sink deep into me. I pondered his imagery in “The Unborn Children” and understood that a new world had been unlocked for me.

Toward the end of the collection, in “Bread and Butter,” Collins writes,

And now something tells me I should make

more out of all that, moving down

and inward where a poem is meant to go.

 

But this time I want to leave it be,

the sea, the stars, the dogs, and the clouds –

just written down, folded in fours, and handed to my host.

If I had known, if I had understood, that poetry could be, is, Billy Collins, I would have had no fear.

Book cover image from GoodReads

4 thoughts on “Billy Collins speaks to me

  1. I’m so happy that you had this “epiphany: about poetry – surprised it didn’t happen sooner, maybe with something like Robert Frosts, MENDING WALL
    “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out.”
    Or, even Edna St. Vincent Millay, TIME DOES NOT BRING RELEF
    “There are a hundred places where I fear
    To go__so with his memory they brim.
    And entering with relief some quiet place
    Where never fell his foot or shone his face
    I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
    And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”
    Even Billy Collins earlier work, my special favorite,QUESTIONS ABOUT ANGELS
    “The only question you ever hear is about
    the little dance floor on the head of a pin
    where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
    It is designed to make us think in millions,
    billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
    into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
    one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
    a small jazz combo working in the background.”

    Like

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