Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Seizing firmly the second Wednesday of November

I don't know how to read poetry.

I have a copy of Ballistics, poems by Billy Collins, and it's delightful.

But at this moment I'm unable to determine whether I've read the whole of this slim volume cover to cover. When first I unwrapped it, I opened it to the beginning and began. And so it went for quite a few pages. But then I wanted to share something, which I did, which reminded me I wanted to check something else. So I flipped some pages, and the title of some as yet unread poem caught my interest. Then I worked backwards a little. Over the next few days I carried the book around and would start reading at whatever page I opened it to (can't do that with a novel).

I think I've read most of it now. But I feel as if a part of the book has been lost on me. For one thing, the book is divided into 4 parts, and I can't begin to formulate a reason for this. While I see connections between a number of the poems, I don't see any logic in the progression from one to the next, why some are grouped together with others. I don't presume to call the structure artificial, but it seems to me that it's constricting (deliberately?) the organic nature of the poetic romp.

Then there's the where.

Have you read poetry on the metro? It feels weird. Like people are looking at me. This slightly paranoid feeling makes it hard to focus, to feel it, to enjoy it fully. (Do you wonder what I look like, Billy? I wear a suit, and slutty boots, and I ride public transportation.)

Poetry at bedtime? Doesn't work for me. I need something a little softer and more sustained. Skipping through poems is the opposite of restful (invigorating!), and to leave it at one simply is not enough.

I like a poem with my morning coffee, I've decided. Between having decided what to pack for Helena's lunch and actually doing so.

Also while cooking supper.

Anyway. I quite like Billy Collins. He's very funny. I can't even tell you what kind of poetry he writes — sonnets? free verse? I have no idea. It doesn't rhyme, but it has rhythm, and it has form on the page.

I think he's postmodern, but I'm not sure that's a term usually applied to poetry, nor that I've correctly done so. The author features as character in these poems, with a self-awareness regarding the act of writing.

I quite like "Vermont, Early November" (much as I like Vermont in early November), in which there's "nothing worth writing about really" and seizing the day is just a little too ambitious, so the author (and I imagine him writing this precisely a year ago) is
determined to seize firmly
the second Wednesday of every month that lay ahead.

It's something I can relate to.

I've had extensive conversations with Helena about the poem about the little piggy who had roast beef.

Collins is calling on me to glance back at Philip Larkin, and look for Paul Valéry's abandoned poems, which you've brought to completion.

My favourite poem in this collection is "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant."

So glad I waited all these decades
to record how hot and sour the hot and sour soup is
here at Chang's this afternoon
and how cold he Chinese beer in a frosted glass.

And my book — José Saramago's Blindness
as it turns out — is so absorbing that I look up
from its escalating horrors only
when I am stunned by one of his arresting sentences.

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches —

Something so very poignant in this. Something beautiful. The author becomes the subject of the poem he might've written and realizes it's altogether different, and better.

So, no, I don't know how to read poetry. But I am starting to learn to enjoy it.

I like Billy Collins. Funny. Quietly joyous. Makes me feel calm inside, that isn't life funny, but everything's going to be alright. Good with coffee.
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