Billy Collins & Validation

Last night, my friend Elyse and I ventured downtown to hear Billy Collins, my favorite poet, read at the Pantages Theatre.

He read for about an hour, a lot of new stuff from Aimless Lovehis new book (I read all the new poems in one sitting– I can do that for no other poet than Billy Collins) but also some old favorites like “The Revenant” and “The Lanyard.”

If you’re not familiar with Billy Collins, please come out from under the dark rock you’re living beneath (I kid, I kid!).  No, but really, in case you didn’t know, Billy Collins is a brilliant and hilarious poet.  Hearing him read live is such a treat for his deadpan delivery.  Elyse remarked, “It’s like attending a comedy event … but a really highbrow one.”

We laughed and laughed and laughed– and then made those soft sighs and murmurs that follow poignant poems.

Afterward, he had a very short Q&A session (which he called a conversation) wherein he said (and I’m paraphrasing as best I can here), “If you read great work and feel appreciative, you’re not a writer.  Writers read and feel a burning jealousy.”

YES!  I was so just discussing this on my blog.

It was a delightful evening with delightful company.  Elyse and I were some of the youngest people in the audience, and I felt bad for the rest of my generation that was spending their Friday without Billy.

Click this image to link to the book's Goodreads page.

Click this image to link to the book’s Goodreads page.



Roses and Janie “mash-up”

Turn this song on and read the poem below it for the most deliciously melancholy experience.

(Am I weird for liking sad songs and poems?  I love them!)

by Billy Collins

In those weeks of midsummer
when the roses in gardens begin to give up,
the big red, white, and pink ones—
the inner, enfolded petals growing cankerous,
the ones at the edges turning brown
or fallen already, down on their girlish backs
in the rough beds of turned-over soil,

then how terrible the expressions on their faces,
a kind of was it all really worth it? look,
to die here slowly in front of everyone
in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast
in a provincial English market town,
to expire by degrees of corruption
in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by,

the thin mail carrier, the stocky butcher
(thank God the children pay no attention),
the swiveling faces in the windows of the buses,
and now this stranger staring over the wall,
his hair disheveled, a scarf loose around his neck,
writing in a notebook, writing about us no doubt,
about how terrible we look under the punishing sun.

we can all do with a little more Billy Collins in our lives

by Billy Collins

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her, your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unsolders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair, and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.


some more Billy

The First Dream
by Billy Collins, my favorite

The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight
and as I lean against the door of sleep
I begin to think about the first person to dream,
how quiet he must have seemed the next morning

as the others stood around the fire
draped in the skins of animals
talking to each other only in vowels,
for this was long before the invention of consonants.

He might have gone off by himself to sit
on a rock and look into the mist of a lake
as he tried to tell himself what had happened,
how he had gone somewhere without going,

how he had put his arms around the neck
of a beast that the others could touch
only after they had killed it with stones,
how he felt its breath on his bare neck.

Then again, the first dream could have come
to a woman, though she would behave,
I suppose, much the same way,
moving off by herself to be alone near water,

except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,

you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.

Photo credit: Jane Pak Oh

i ♥ Billy Collins

How to describe Collins?  He is a poetry rockstar.  A brilliant poet who is famous while he’s still alive.  A comedian with words.  The king of the killer last line.

Billy Collins is so popular that it’s almost a cliche to like this former U.S. Poet Laureate.

I don’t care.


No Things
by Billy Collins

This love for the petty things,
part natural from the slow of childhood,
part a literary affectation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later in the day to a fly
strolling along the rim of a wineglass —

are we just avoiding the one true destiny,
when we do that? averting our eyes from
Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker’s coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone form the infinity of death,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside

when we should all be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves against the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,

the door locked behind us
as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
and the enigma of our origins?

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

banging away on nothingness itself,
some with the foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.

the pleasure of re-reading

I have friends who never re-read books, sometimes due to a lack of time and sometimes because the mystery/thrill has gone out of the story for them after the initial reading.  While I agree that there is nothing quite like that pioneer perusal, re-reading to me is like returning to a precious memory, rejoining a conversation.

Books I re-read most often:
The Chronicles of Narnia (I re-read these almost continually, sometimes up to a dozen times a year!)
The Book Thief
Deathly Hallows
The Last Unicorn
Peace Like a River
poetry by Billy Collins

Sometimes I re-visit old favorites that I’ve not picked up in years, and this is delightful too.  I just finished re-reading Anne of Green Gables, a book I haven’t read in over ten years but which used to be my absolute favorite.  What a joy to listen to Anne’s imaginations, to run over to Orchard Slope to see Diana, to crack that slate over Gilbert’s head, to delight in puffed sleeves, and to watch Marilla soften over the years!  I think I’ll start in on Anne of Avonlea next.

Do you ever re-read books?  If so, which are your favorites to revisit time and again?

Genius by Billy Collins

This poem is strongly influencing the story I am writing right now.

Genius by Billy Collins

was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and all your books went flying.

Or if you walked into an open locker door
you would be known as Einstein,
who imagined riding a streetcar into infinity.

Later, genius became someone
who could take a sliver of chalk and square pi
a hundred places out beyond the decimal point,

or someone painting on his back on a scaffold,
or a man drawing a waterwheel in a margin,
or spinning out a little night music.

But earlier this week on a wooded path,
I thought the swans afloat on the reservoir
were the true geniuses,

the ones who had figured out how to fly,
how to be both beautiful and brutal,
and how to mate for life.

Twenty-four geniuses in all,
for I numbered them as Yeats had done,
deployed upon the calm, crystalline surface–

forty-eight if we count their still reflections,
or an even fifty if you want to toss in me
and the dog running up ahead,

who were smart enough to be out
that morning–she sniffing the ground,
me with my head up in the light morning breeze.

Billy Collins poems animated!

Billy Collins is my favorite poet (and I was lucky enough/blessed enough to meet him in the fall of 2010!).  He is absolutely hilarious and a brilliant writer, both of which I would love to be.

Carve out fifteen minutes of your day to click this link here and view his TED talk and see five of his poems masterfully animated.  I promise you it will be worthwhile.