My Favorite Writing Teacher.

Most poetry sucks.

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 you can see, this guy absolutely blows me away. See if he doesn’t do the same for you. My favorite three books of his are Sailing Alone Around The Room, Nine Horses, and The Art of Drowning.

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.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Aristotle

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.

21 Comments

  1. *didn’t like.

    Sorry, it’s early!

    Reply
  2. Is that first one a poetic version of a rap battle? A more refined and PG version of “Hit ’em up” by Tupac. I think someone got served.

    Reply
  3. There is exact one (!) poem, that’s really moving me. Originally it is called “Was es ist” by Erich Fried. The english translation I found on the net (works pretty good, the original doesn’t has rhymes either):

    What it is
    It is nonsense
    says reason
    It is what it is
    says love

    It is calamity
    says calculation
    It is nothing but pain
    says fear
    It is hopeless
    says insight
    It is what it is
    says love

    It is ludicrous
    says pride
    It is foolish
    says caution
    It is impossible
    says experience
    It is what it is
    says love

    Reply
    • Yes, the Lanyard. What a touching little observation about this “worthless” (humble) little thing a child made for his mother.

      Reply
  4. Wow. I’ve had writer’s block on a short story I’m trying to write for weeks. This is much needed and very inspiring. I love, love, love this line:
    The profile of an animal is being smeared
    on the wall of a cave
    but my second favorite line is this: 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.

    Thanks for sharing my friend.

    -Stef

    Reply
    • Mornin’ Stef. Glad you like.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the great post. Here’s a poem by Ted Kooser:

    At the Office Early

    Rain has beaded the panes
    of my office windows,
    and in each little lens
    the bank at the corner
    hangs upside down.
    What wonderful music
    this rain must have made
    in the night, a thousand banks
    turned over, the change
    crashing out of the drawers
    and bouncing upstairs
    to the roof, the soft
    percussion of the ferns
    dropping out of their pots,
    the ballpoint pens
    popping out of their sockets
    in a fluffy snow
    of deposit slips.
    Now all day long,
    as the sun dries the glass,
    I’ll hear the soft piano
    of banks righting themselves,
    the underpaid tellers
    counting their nickels and dimes.

    Reply
  6. Great cheese, Luke, thanks.
    If you haven’t read him, give Richard Brautigan poetry a go.

    Reply
  7. Such a touching post! There are always those teachers who make a great impact to their students. Here is one of my favorite poems. Enjoy.

    “may i feel said he”

    by e e cummings

    may i feel said he
    (i’ll squeal said she
    just once said he)
    it’s fun said she
    (may i touch said he
    how much said she
    a lot said he)
    why not said she
    (let’s go said he
    not too far said she
    what’s too far said he
    where you are said she)
    may i stay said he
    (which way said she
    like this said he
    if you kiss said she
    may i move said he
    is it love said she)
    if you’re willing said he
    (but you’re killing said she
    but it’s life said he
    but your wife said she
    now said he)
    ow said she
    (tiptop said he
    don’t stop said she
    oh no said he)
    go slow said she
    (cccome?said he
    ummm said she)
    you’re divine!said he
    (you are Mine said she)

    Reply
  8. Perfect is untraceable

    The disciple asked the guru, teacher, who is in your opinion the most spiritual guru?
    And the guru replied, the good air.
    Why so, asked the disciple.
    Because he is in such deep communion with his creator, that he is invisible.

    The student asked the professor, teacher, who is in your opinion the best writer?
    And the professor replied, Anonymous.
    Why so, asked the student.
    Because he exchanged his identity for the right to publish life’s greatest lessons.

    The novice asked the maestro, teacher, who is in your opinion the most talented musician?
    And the maestro replied, Silence.
    Why so, asked the novice.
    Because he plays notes you cannot hear.

    Reply
  9. I don’t know how Billy Collins feels but in an era where musicians very publicly complain about copyright theft, poets are pretty much ignored.

    But if you consider that these small collections of words are ideal to email, or to post in a blog, or to even put in a comment section, we’re back to square one on starving poets. A profession that didn’t earn much in the first place.

    I’d urge you to take down the three or so Collins poems in the blog post and instead leave a link to somewhere to actually buy his books of poetry. Ditto the others in the comments section.

    Words don’t have to be cheap..

    Reply
    • I agree with you. How about this? I will take down two of the three. Printing out ONE will at least show people how good he is and may actually help sales? In however small a way. But I like how you think.

      Reply
  10. Three poets to check out: Michael Ondaatje, Ken Nordine and Kenneth Patchen.

    THE CINNAMON PEELER by Michael Ondaatje
    If I were a cinnamon peeler
    I would ride your bed
    and leave the yellow bark dust
    on your pillow.

    Your breasts and shoulders would reek
    you could never walk through markets
    without the profession of my fingers
    floating over you. The blind would
    stumble certain of whom they approached
    though you might bathe
    under rain gutters, monsoon.

    Here on the upper thigh
    at this smooth pasture
    neighbor to your hair
    or the crease
    that cuts your back. This ankle.
    You will be known among strangers
    as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

    I could hardly glance at you
    before marriage
    never touch you
    — your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
    I buried my hands
    in saffron, disguised them
    over smoking tar,
    helped the honey gatherers…

    When we swam once
    I touched you in water
    and our bodies remained free,
    you could hold me and be blind of smell.
    You climbed the bank and said

    this is how you touch other women
    the grasscutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
    And you searched your arms
    for the missing perfume.

    and knew

    what good is it
    to be the lime burner’s daughter
    left with no trace
    as if not spoken to in an act of love
    as if wounded without the pleasure of scar.

    You touched
    your belly to my hands
    in the dry air and said
    I am the cinnamon
    peeler’s wife. Smell me.

    While not poetry, you should read Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter.” His sense of poetry is definitely present. It’s about New Orleans trumpet player Buddy Bolden who went mad.

    Reply
    • Chris: That was really nice. Thanks for postin’ it, dude. Appreesh.

      Reply
  11. you turned me onto collins a few years ago in an interview, luke. thanks for that. i really enjoy him. bukowski’s not bad, either. this is called roll the dice…

    if you’re going to try, go all the
    way.
    otherwise, don’t even start.

    if you’re going to try, go all the
    way.
    this could mean losing girlfriends,
    wives, relatives, jobs and
    maybe your mind.

    go all the way.
    it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days.
    it could mean freezing on a
    park bench.
    it could mean jail,
    it could mean derision,
    mockery,
    isolation.
    isolation is the gift,
    all the others are a test of your
    endurance, of
    how much you really want to
    do it.
    and you’ll do it
    despite rejection and the worst odds
    and it will be better than
    anything else
    you can imagine.

    if you’re going to try,
    go all the way.
    there is no other feeling like
    that.
    you will be alone with the gods
    and the nights will flame with
    fire.

    do it, do it, do it.
    do it.

    all the way
    all the way.

    you will ride life straight to
    perfect laughter, its
    the only good fight
    there is.

    Reply
  12. Hi Luke
    you should check out the poems by White Rice. He’s on facebook as A Grain of White Rice.

    Reply
  13. First-class info it is actually. We have been awaiting for this info. I also like the design was this a free theme or a pay one?

    Reply
  14. Hi Luke,

    Quite like you, I couldn’t stand poetry too.
    Then I chanced upon your post, enjoyed to the utmost.

    …okay, I quit.
    Maybe I’m not cut out for verses, rhyming or otherwise.
    But I’m certainly looking up Billy Collins on my next visit to a bookstore.
    Thanks for enlightening.

    Reply

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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.

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