Sunday 21 February 2010

Picking Wild Strawberries

'The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems' by Billy Collins is not his most recent publication, just the title they had available through the library. I first came across him a few weeks ago and was so taken with the poem I found that I wanted to read some more.

The word that springs to mind to describe him can only be unpretentious. He does not need to use unfathomable vocabulary to get his point across or subtle references to obscure philosophical ideas, in fact in 'The Introduction' he gently mocks the way some poetry does just this. The poem addresses the reader, setting out to explain the references contained within the poem they are about to read, to enable them to appreciate it more fully. He explains that they will need to understand the meaning of 'Imroz', 'Hypsicles' and 'helminthology', that "Wagga Wagga is in New South Wales./ Rhyolite is that soft volcanic rock." but then he politely adds, "The rest of the poem should be clear./ I'll just read it and let it speak for itself./ It's about the time I went picking wild strawberries./ It's called Picking Wild Strawberries." I liked it because while he is making fun he is also making a serious critical point about how poetry can be over analysed, as if there is a correct way to understand a poem, a process that can destroy individual appreciation.

Several of the poems in the collection are what I think of as self-referential, poems that talk about either themselves or the process of being a poet and writing poetry. The first poem 'You, Reader' addresses the reader again, then the second one 'Monday' describes how the poet spends his Monday morning, in contrast with other more normal occupations. I particularly loved this stanza:

"The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down their mines,
and the poets are looking out of their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved."

though he does reflect wryly a few lines later that "because it is their job for which they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon." In 'The Trouble with Poetry', the penultimate poem of the book, he returns to the troubled life of the poet, wondering what they will do "when we have compared everything in the world to everything else in the world" because "mostly poetry fills me with the urge to write poetry". Then he ends with a reference to Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

"whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school."

and I have this lovely image of him as a teenager, already so possessed by poetry that he knows that it will consume his life.

The other repeated theme is death. In 'Reaper' the writer encounters a man with a scythe who becomes, in his imagination, the grim reaper. 'Bereft' was one of my favourites, a woman musing on how easy it must be to be dead, to escape all the mundane things that make up existence, all the things you could do without, exchanging them for simple emptiness. But the writer adds his understated horror at the end:

"a region of silence except for

the occasional beating of wings-
and, I wanted to add
as the sun dazzled your lifted wineglass,
the sound of the newcomers weeping."

And then in 'Breathless' he starts talking about people sleeping, only to digress into the notion of being buried in a comfortable sleeping pose. I really liked this idea, to eschew the "dark suit" and "ridiculous tie" in favour of an "earthy little bedroom":

"curled up in a coffin
in fresh pair of cotton pajamas,
a down pillow under my weighty head."

Some of his poems are slightly disconcerting. They start telling one story, but then the last couple of lines seem to go off at a tangent, almost as if he has forgotten what he was intending to say. But you have to assume it is deliberate, to stop the reader predicting the outcome. I know you do that sometimes, particularly where you have a nice neat rhyme, you think ahead to what other words will fit, and subconsciously try and anticipate where the poem is going. For example, in 'Building with it's face blown off' (and many others are available on Youtube) he describes in detail a bomb blasted building, it's innards exposed to public scrutiny, and then the last couple of stanzas he seems to look off into the distance, and then further away, into another country, where we have a couple on a blanket having a picnic. I was confused. Similarly in 'Class Picture, 1954', Superman makes a surprise appearance at the end of what is a nostalgic tale of a childhood moment.

Others contain beautifully complete stories, capturing a simple idea so succinctly. In 'Eastern Standard Time' he describes the day, from the point of view of people living within his own time zone, that in spite of their different lives, they are bonded together by the common experience of the time of day.

Am going to end with the final poem of the book, entitled 'Silence'. Not typical of Collins, but I think it is hard to pin down what might be a 'typical' poem. Just wonderful images, wonderful use of words, which is what poetry is about.

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a motionless player on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
the silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house -
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.


  1. I love Billy Collins! You're right "unpretentious" is a perfect word for him - I love how he writes about writing without making it seem like some obscure religious ritual. There's one poem of his, that begins "You are the bread and the knife", which I love because it manages to be funny and wry and poke fun at itself, and still in the end be rather moving.

  2. Thanks for that introduction to Billy Collins, Martine. Interesting stuff.


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