The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.
Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry. In it, Collins claims:
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.
It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”
I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.
And that is a shame.
For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S. He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:
The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.
See it’s good to laugh. And have fun in poetry.
And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:
The Swan at Edgewater Park
Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.
But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:
by Billy Collins
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.