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.


k. said...

The division of poetry collections into sections is typically done at the insistence of publishers. Most poets I know are unenthusiastic about the practice, for exactly the reason you mention. But it's relatively rare to find a book published in N. America in the last 5 - 10 years that hasn't been chopped up that way.

If you like Ballistics, might I suggest Jan Zwicky's Songs for Relinquishing the Earth? Priscilla Uppal's Ontological Necessities? Adam Sol's Jeremiah, Ohio?

Isabella said...

Thanks for the suggestions, k. I'm having a wild time finding my bearings in the big wide world of poetry.

cipriano said...

This is such an interesting post Isabella.
I have just recently read Ballistics and prior to this I have read all of Collins’s other collections of poems, over the years. So I have really followed him, thanks to a friend introducing me to his work. And not only have I followed him, but he has very much influenced the way I myself write poetry.
I would say that the ease with which Collins handles commonplace events and the gentle way he looks in, around, and over any topic at his disposal, it has all helped me to see the beauty and wonder that are a part of everyday experience. And because of this, he has inspired me to do my own writing.
But your initial lacklustre comments are intriguing because I have previously read several lacklustre reviews of Ballistics.
Some commentators are saying that he has “hit a dead end” with Ballistics.
Or, “The very things that make him popular, accessible and clever -- especially around the time of ‘Picnic, Lightning’ -- have solidified into concrete, and like a machine endlessly repeating itself he turns out poems with subtle color variations but which remain in the same mold.” [Sean Patrick Hill in The Oregonian].

I will agree that Ballistics seems to me “typical” Collins stuff. But, having said that, it is still such rich and wonderful work.
Why fix what ain’t broke?
And I think that with Billy Collins a key word is “accessible.” Were I to be introducing someone to the world of contemporary poetry, it would be Billy Collins I was gift-wrapping.
And what about serenity.
For this, just listen to the endings, the last stanzas of so many of his poems here in Ballistics. The way he describes what The Great American Poem might “sound” like:

I once heard someone compare it
to the sound of crickets in a field of wheat
or, more faintly, just the wind
over that field stirring things that we will never see.

From The Lamps Unlit

And who cares if it takes me all day
to write a poem about the dawn
and I finish in the dark with the night –
some love it best – draped across my shoulders.

Even the poem you mentioned as your favorite, Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches –
the plates and teapots, the immaculate tablecloths,
as well as the soft brown hair of the waitress
in the white blouse and short black skirt,
the one who is smiling now as she bears a cup of rice
and shredded beef with garlic to my favorite table in the corner.

As you said, of those very words, Something so very poignant in this. Something beautiful.
You expressed this serenity also by saying that reading his poems made you feel “calm inside.” I know what you mean.
Billy Collins is the epitome [in our day] of the magnification of words.
He takes the everyday and presents it as once in a lifetime.
The above-mentioned critic went on to point out that it is unfortunate that with Ballistics, Collins has failed to “expand, explore, and attempt to break new ground.”
Others of us can be somewhat grateful.

Isabella said...

Cip, I really am loving Billy Collins. My "initial lacklustre comments" are not regarding Collins so much as poetry in general. I don't really get it (poetry), or I never used to. Sure, I studied some at school, but I never read poetry for pleasure. But then there's Billy (See how comfortable I am with him? I'm on a first-name basis.) The few poems of his I'd heard in recent years really resonated, prompting me to search this volume out.

I've definitely been learning to see, and search out if necessary, the poetry in the commonplace this year; I mean, to experience it. Who knew I'd find POETRY in actual poems?!