I know nothing about poetry. A bad experience in my first-year World Literature class sent me running screaming from the English Department. This doesn't mean I don't like poetry, just that I know little about it, or how to find good poetry.
But when I read s.penkevich's great review
of Sailing Alone Around the Room, the poems he posted as part of that caught my attention right away, and I ordered the book from the library.
And fell in love with it. Billy Collins writes poetry that is accessible but not facile. It is frequently funny and just as frequently made me think. It occasionally made me cry.
Collins is a master of examining the particular in such depth that it becomes the universal. He focuses on moments, real moments, right now, and yet makes them something more. Again and again, he would capture sensations, thoughts in such warm, clear prose, in such a way that they were more than just what he was describing.
This is not ascetic or spiritual poetry. (Osso Buco was one of my favourite poems, in which he addresses this head on.) This is poetry clothed in the material, not shying away weight and warmth. But it is the material world that melds with whatever is just beyond our vision.
One verse from Osso Buco (okay, maybe two):I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
A citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach -
something you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife's laughter
on the telephone in the next room....
There are so many poems on writing that I kept grabbing my husband and reading them to him, knowing that he'd appreciate the Workshop poem, and others. And I loved those. But the others, the ones that pierce through somehow through the veil to be show the immanence in transcendence, those were the ones that crept inside me and nestled there.
I want to give you so many examples! About how wonderful poems like Questions About Angels and Tuesday, June 4, 1991 and Snow and a dozen more are. But there was one poem that I came back to again, and again, and again. It's too long to type out in full, but I'll give you the first verse, and assure you that if you go to find the rest, it's just simply amazing.
It's called Directions:You know the brick path in back of the house,
the one you see from the kitchen window,
the one that bends around the far end of the garden
where all the yellow primroses are?
And you know how if you leave the path
and walk up into the woods you come
to a heap of rocks, probably pushed
down during the horrors of the Ice Age,
and a grove of tall hemlocks, dark green now
against the light-brown fallen leaves?
And farther on, you know
the small footbridge with the broken railing
and if you go beyond that you arrive
at the bottom of that sheep's head hill?
Well, if you start climbing, and you
might have to grab hold of a sapling
when the going gets steep,
you will eventually come to a long stone
ridge with a border of pine trees
which is as high as you can go
and a good enough place to stop.
Billy Collins is the social historian of poetry, finding meaning in the everyday, in the mundane, and making it full of wonder but never saccharine.
I have to take the book back to the library now, and that hurts. Almost literally. I want to keep it here, in my hands, where I can keep leafing back through it and find the poems that moved me the first time and read them again and see what new things I find. This is one I will, without a doubt, have to own.