Guest Poetry Blog #11 – The Trouble With Poetry – Peggy Rosenthal Features Billy Collins – Part Two of Two

American poet Billy Collins. Photo Credit: Maria Thibodeau



This first line will not go away,
and though the middle ones will disappear,
the third, like the first, is bound to get more play.

Examples of the type are written every day,
and whether uplifting or drear,
that first line just won’t go away.

It seems some lines have the right of way.
It’s their job to reappear,
for example, the third, always getting extra play.

Whether you squawk like an African gray
or sing sweetly to the inner ear,
the line you wrote first just won’t go away.

You may compose all night and day
under a bare lightbulb or a crystal chandelier,
but line number three must get more play.

How can a poet hope to go wildly astray
or sing out like a romantic gondolier
when the first line just won’t go away,
and the third one always has the final say?

Billy Collins from Aimless Love, Random House, 2013


I have lots of favorite poets—Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, and many more. But for this post I thought it would be fun to focus on my favorite comic poet, Billy Collins. Comic poetry is hard to compose without becoming simply silly, but Collins is a master at it.

I’ll take, first, some of his many poems in the ars poetica genre (all from Aimless Love, Random House, 2013). Above, there’s his delightful poem “Villanelle,” which is a villanelle about the villanelle form.

Then here are some stanzas from the wry, gently self-mocking “The Trouble with Poetry“:

The trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out or their mothers into the dew grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

Next, here’s some of “Monday,” which begins:

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.…

The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows…

for there is always something to see—
a bird grasping a thin branch,
the headlights of a taxi rounding a corner
those two boys in wool caps angling across the street.

The fishermen bob in their boats,
the linemen climb their round poles,
the barbers wait by their mirrors and chairs,
and the poets continue to stare
at the cracked birdbath or a limb knocked down by the wind.

I love this poem’s modesty, its jokes (of course), but also its hidden depth—because looking is indeed what a poet does. Here the comedy is in the comparisons of poets to other workers. In “Consolation” there’s another sort of comedy which Collins occasionally engages in: the listing of what is not—

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

Billy Collins from The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburg Press, 1995

And the poem goes on in this manner. On YouTube, Collins reads this poem (along with many others)—always in a deadpan voice. In fact, deadpan is the characteristic voice of Collins’s poetry, a voice that allows him to create fanciful lists, caress details, or slip into a profound understatement, all without ruffling the comic surface tone of the verse. Humor is his home, and much of the humor is self-effacing (as illustrated in the ars poetica poems I quoted from at the start of this post).

Sometimes profound understatement is a poem’s main point, as in “Greek and Roman Statuary.” This poem first details the gradual disintegration of those ancient statues: the “tip of the nose” falling off first, then the whole head, and so on until nothing is left—all reported in Collins’s typically droll details. But then the poem shifts to the present, and it’s our own disintegration that is detailed:

digits that got too close to the slicer of time,
hands snapped off by the clock,
whole limbs caught in the mortal thresher.

There’s still “the crisscross traffic of living bodies— // hundreds of noses still intact.” But—

It’s anyone’s guess when the day will come
when there is nothing left of us
but the bare, solid plinth we once stood upon…

All my quotations from Collins so far have been excerpts. But I want to end by offering a whole poem: “The Art of Drowning,” from the collection of that title.

I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.

After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn’t you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs—
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography—
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.

Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,

a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.

Comedy is notoriously hard to talk about. So instead of even trying, I’ll say a bit about what happens to me as I read this poem.

The colloquial tone of the first few lines draws me in, as if the speaker and I were sitting over a beer wondering about this business of your life “flashing before your eyes” at the instant of sudden death. Then his terms get suddenly vivid in a mock-terrifying way: “crushing decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds”—for instance if you fall off a steamship or get swept away by a flood. Not the most likely means of sudden death for most of us; the improbability of the examples is part of the fun.

Wouldn’t you hope for a more leisurely review?” the speaker asks, in a leisurely tone that contradicts the urgency of the situation. And now I know I’m in for the sort of play that Collins excels at: lists of imaginary items that might fit the situation—if the situation were plausible to begin with (which a more leisurely view is decidedly not).

After the leisurely options of family photograph album, slide-show, or essay—each presented with its own joking—he moves on to play with the cliché of one’s life “flashing before your eyes.” Wild images of lightening-bolts of self-revealing truth are suddenly deflated by the “fish,” which is in fact the most likely thing to flash by you as you drown. The deflation continues through the poem’s quieting (and disquieting) end, “as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom….”

The movement of this poem is typical Collins: flights of fancy, caressing of imagined (often teasing) details, the treat of brilliant wit; the fun of a fertile imagination; then a final, muted reminder of reality’s truths—sometimes playful, sometimes profound, sometimes both.

Peggy Rosenthal, March 2023

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