Well, most everything sucks when you get right down to it; most advertising, most TV shows, most novels.
But poetry? Ugh! If I see one more impenetrable little block of word salad in the New Yorker, I’m gonna need someone to hold my hair while I dictate my review into the big white telephone.
“O’ tin can in the street. Speaks to me. While heaven beckons.”
Hey, “O’ tin can in the street”? King Tut called. He wants his hieroglyphics back.
Then one day someone turns me on to Billy Collins and ever since I have been a complete Collins groupie. (Unbidden comes the disturbing image of my boxers landing on the stage at his next reading; an image I apologize for very deeply.)
I encourage anyone who fancies him or herself a writer to buy all the poems this man has written and study every turn of phrase, every perfectly chosen word. As writers, we improve by studying the work of those we admire.
At the risk of getting a cease-and-desist order from his publisher, I am going to include one of my favorites here. In addition to being a really good poem, it is also a 479-word course in the structure of classic storytelling – i.e., have a beginning, middle, and an end.
As good as he is, I suppose the law of averages says there has to be at least one other writer out there writing poetry this accessible, this evocative; poetry that doesn’t need to be decrypted. If you have a favorite poem, feel free to post it here. I’d love to see it.
Before I go, a cool link to some of his poetry brought to life visually. (I think from a project done by JWT. There are a few others online too. Just sniff around.) The coolest part is that they’re read by Billy Collins himself.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
There 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 being 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 unshoulders 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 a 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,
the streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.