I stumbled in Billy Collins on the radio yesterday and it was a most delightful chance encounter. The former Poet Laureate of the United States (but of course, you knew that, yes?) is consistently disarming with his wit and strange thinking. A trip through his poems is a walk through the labyrinth of his always intriguing mind as he takes you through unexpected twists and turns to suddenly arrive where you started— or else end up in a neighboring labyrinth.
And so this morning, I grabbed a book of his poems off the shelf and was charmed yet again by his humor laced with profundity. So much of his poetry is about the act itself of writing the poem and you find yourself at his side gazing out the window or contemplating the silverware on the table or listening to the neighbor’s dog barking. Each act of encountering world sparks off strange associations and off you go riding on language to follow them to their dangling conclusion.
The mere act of reading a poem— any poem— is a step off the wheel of simply getting through the day and paying heed to Socrates’ injunction: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Poetry puts a magnifying glass to the everyday objects and experiences perpetually around us and prods us to examine them. And then tell what they awaken in us. Mary Oliver puts it this way:
“…the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one world throws at you each morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”
Of course, most of us don’t and many for good reasons—“I’d rather bake a pie or go jogging or say it in tones or paint or ‘Hey! it’s all I can do to survive!’” But language is free and available to all and poetry not just for leisure-class elites. A few moments each day stopping the avalanche of mere sensation and pausing to really see or hear or taste or smell or feel— and then taking the time to take a photo with words instead of your Smartphone— is well worth considering.
For the record, there are many memorable poems by Mr. Collins, but truth be told, I can’t read too many in a row in the same way I can’t listen to too many successive blues songs or bluegrass tunes. The touch of irony and emotional distance in his work starts to wear on me. The charm and humor is everywhere, but I prefer a bit more straightforward feeling and honest vulnerability, some of which his language masks rather than reveals.
But hey, he did inspire me to write this blog and some of his poems are sheer genius (The Lanyard, for example). Thank you, Mr, Collins and keep sitting by the window with that empty chair next to you to invite your readers in.