Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Billy Collins on "The Reader"

Two Part post

Part I: (Disjointed) notes and links from Billy Collins from his reading in Key West:

The writer courts "the love of strangers."

Collins challenges Yeats: "a poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table"
He addresses the reader.

Poet aware of his presence; other, oblivious.  Dogs vs. Cats.

A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal

You, Reader

How can you envision a reader?

Writer to reader. Reader to writer.

Pretend that you haven't written the poem: Objective view point.

As a poet, you're more interested in yourself than the reader (or poetry).

Form gives pleasure to the reader.

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

Collins never thought those poems were talking to him - until he read Walt Whitman.

Collins talks of the intimacy between you and the reader.

Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Bridge


Taking inspiration from Collins, Inua Ellams shares his version of "Directions."

It's interesting that I deleted the formatting so I lost the stanza and line breaks at one point - (how would it change the poem?):

The Trouble with Poetry

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night --
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky --
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass. 
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world, 
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti --
to be perfectly honest for a moment --
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
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.

Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, is the author of seven collections of poetry and is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He serves as the poet laureate of New York State.

(One of my favorite poems by "the bicycling poet of San Francisco"; I shared this poem once with a freshman English class since it was the poem of the day on the Writer's Almanac.  They never forget it; so much so it was a running joke until they were seniors.)

- We stopped listening here - I encourage you to listen to the end.  Collins gets risque in "Purity" (although he seems PG-13 next to Ginsberg). 

Collins jokes writing a poem is about how to end it - which is true.  Reminds me of the idea that "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."  I forget who said it first.   I google to discover French poet, Paul Valery

Last poem, Collins reads "Envoy"  "Off you go..." 


Part II. Reflection

September 4, 2012

Today in class - a block period - and the day after Labor Day, I could sense the general enthusiasm in the room.  So I pushed my luck and shared a Billy Collins podcast that I've been listening to, even falling asleep it at night like a bedtime story. 

 There is something about Billy Collins that speaks to me - that makes me smile and feel good about life and poetry - that it need not be all death and lost love with complex allusions and forced analysis. It simply reads as if a wise man were sharing a story with images.  With a blend of sincerity and self-aware irony, Collins takes notice of the eternal in the mundane daily lives that we make not otherwise care enough to slow down and see - and "notice the unlit candles" of our imagination as he challenges us in his poem, "You, Reader."  

While on the surface, he seems overly simplistic yet he makes subtle allusions and references that may leave you curious to ask what's the joke? He uses humor to entice the reader to read on, and read more poetry. Listening to his reading, we are offered an astute laugh track from a discerning crowd of poetry lovers. We laugh with them, but may not even know why at first.

In "A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal" Collins writes, "But some days I may notice/ a little door swinging open/ in the morning air". My hope in sharing this podcast and his take on poetry is that a "little door" swings open for my students - that there is humor in poetry - and the more poetry we read the more we can relate to it. 

 It need not boring if we begin to open doors and make connections like synopsis in the brain.  With my notes above, I like to embed hyper links for the curious - and for me - to make connections with a click.

In order to explain anything, we turn to words - and to metaphors and similes - and to analogies or extended metaphors - maybe even epic similes. A few years ago a famous cancer researcher from the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Tuohy. visited WRA and he spoke about the language of metaphor as a powerful tool in explaining his work in cancer research.  Think about it: without words or poetry, we cannot express anything - or explain anything.  We need images that we can relate to in order to make connections to things and ideas that we cannot wrap our mind around - at first; however, once we can see images and analogies in our mind's eye, we get it.  

Statement of the obvious: A poet offers pictures through poetry; however, does poetry depend more on the reader's ability to see - and listen?

In class, I wonder what they heard today. What did they write in their moleskine journals?   Were there any epiphanies or did a "little door open"? I wonder if anyone cares to comment...

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