I imagine that my face must have burned when my seventh grade Language Arts teacher called me to her desk the afternoon she gave me the poetry project. I remember how my mind would reel in situations like that: What trouble could I be in? I know I handed in my assignment… I wasn’t talking when she was talking… Maybe my mom is coming to get me early?
The poetry project was a thick packet of instructions for me to work through when everyone else was doing something else. I went to another classroom with another teacher and… I got to work on one of the beautiful, new, Mac computers all by myself!!!
I must have come across poetry before, but this was the first time I spent quality time with it, just me and the words. I remember one of the tasks was to look at certain poets and illustrate their poems however I wanted. I used a bunch of different fonts to make This is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams, pop off the page. Plums took on a round, purple font and the word icebox was barely legible in its gray frostbitten lettering. Poems that were more than a few lines quickly lost my interest making anything Emily Dickinson wrote a favorite back then. Eventually, the packet instructed me to write poems myself, based off of paintings that interested me. I remember Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath was one of them because that mom looked like mine.
My interest in poetry ebbed and flowed in the years after that. The poetry I read was usually required for a class. I’d write sporadically throughout high school and then only in letters to friends during college. I found out about Billy Collins through my modern dance class of all places, when my teacher had us work with Instructions to a Portrait Artist.
The class had been a struggle for me. I had a shaky sense of self-confidence which translated into lacking a kind of natural connection to my body. Basically, I thought about what I was doing too much. When I heard Collins’ poem I felt like this was one exploration I could do well. I understood words more than music and just knowing that was true about me made me forget to focus on how I looked to my class of ex-ballerinas. It changed my focus. In fact, that might be the best way to explain why I love Billy Collins’ poetry: it shifts your focus to the little things and grounds you.
The two-term US Poet Laureate is regularly referred to as the most popular poets in America. Even if you think you haven’t heard of him, you probably have. You can watch him on TED or read him on New York Subways. If you’re a dog lover, a traveler, a parent, or kid there’s a poem of his for you. His poems are referred to with adjectives such as, “welcoming”, “suburban”, “conversational”, and “tender”. This isn’t inaccessible, high-brow stuff. It’s your kitchen table, the blooming hydrangeas, and a quick witted joke.
To borrow a quote from the New York Times Mary Jo Salter:
“One appeal of the typical Collins poem is that it’s less able to help you memorize it than to help you to remember, for a little while anyway, your own life.”
When I found out Billy Collins was coming to The Sunken Garden at the Hill-Stead Museum, I knew had to see him. It was the back of his head that I saw first. That unmistakable U-shaped pattern of baldness and then fuzzy, koala-like gray was hair making its way to the stage. That’s Billy! I thought with a thrill. There is something about New Yorkers of a certain age that stands out. There’s an urbanity to it that I notice the more time I spend in the city and the more people I meet. Billy has this thing, this quality. He’s also smaller than I imagined, slighter. Not sickly- but for a voice so rich, for words so far reaching- his body felt small. This was comforting to me actually. It meant that Billy was a real person and that I was a real person and we could share the same space and vocabulary. We could both be in the world making things with words. Looking at him, my dreams didn’t seem so unrealistic.
It had stopped raining right before my friend Tyler and I parked our lawn chairs between a couple of carefully manicured bushes. That “just rained” smell hung in the air. It was the first day of summer too and the sun was in its golden hour. Beautiful old pine trees dotted the perimeter of the garden and the sky was so perfectly blue and open. It felt so special, to say the least. To be outside and with words and with people who felt the same way about poetry. I hadn’t read or heard any of the poems Billy read but I came out with a few favorites I wanted to share with you. Many of them have audio, which I recommend you listening to, he’s quite the reader.
The prelude to this poem is gold. How he talks about his growth as a person and writer is so where I’m at: “I found out that these things had been said much better. Then I realized I had nothing to say and my poetry improved.” The whole poem plays on this theme of development, paying attention, and looking at how to take an opportunity.
“The sense of being homesick for a place that is not my home, while being right in the middle of it.” I wonder if there is a name for this phenomenon. I think feel something similar whenever I visit my high school. Have you ever felt this way?
I am Italian-American and whenever anything Italian is mentioned, my ears always perk up in excitement and skepticism. Ask other Italian people, I am sure it is the same for them. You want to share that feeling of famiglia wherever you can and with whoever you can, but you’re protective of it too. Billy not being Italian but talking so elegantly about Italy in many of his poems only endears me to him more; la fratellanza dell’espresso.
It’s always good to remember that poems can just be funny. Not in a rhyming, limerick-y way either, but in the “Dad joke” kind of way. My favorite line comes at the end, “By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes. But that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.” I can imagine myself playfully reprimanding my own kid with this poem. And the subsequent eye roll. And the attempts to rip the poem off the fridge so I stop reading it to them.
I love this poem’s simplicity. How. Every. Word. Counts. Without the title how would this poem feel? What other sense would it make?
When I read this poem, I imagine Frank Underwood speaking. I think the way his voice can remain so even tempered while still somehow intimately snarling at you, is just what this poem is doing.
He closed the night with Nostalgia which felt fitting to include as the final poem here too. It has Billy’s characteristic humor; “It was a wonderful time to be alive. Or even dead”, while ending on a palatable but still existential meditation on past, present, and future.
It feels so good to be in the company of these words, doesn’t it?
Let me know what some of your favorite poems are, I’m always looking for more poetry to read!