The People's Bard
Finally, a great poet that everyone gets.
Thursday, February 14, 2002
The word "charm" has ancient roots meaning "song" or "incantation." A spoken charm, coaxed out of the alchemy of language, was like a poem, a spell to delight a lover, entrance a crowd, even ward off evil.
Few contemporary poems could be described as charming; too often, much of what is published today strikes the reader as either self-indulgent (me forever rhyming with me) or pointlessly obscure (the poetry-as-puzzle school). A welcome exception to these trends is Billy Collins, a poet whose poems are truly charming, in both the ancient and modern senses of the word. Collins, who will read from his works Friday evening at the Santa Catalina School, was named US Poet Laureate last year, joining the esteemed company of such poets as Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks. And just in time, too: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, many Americans instinctively turned to poetry for its wisdom and powers of consolation. Collins has proved an able, eloquent guide to the value of poetry in difficult times. He says that poetry creates "a place apart" from ordinary language, "a place for grief to go." In the way they affirm the here-and-now, poems are also "prayers of gratitude" that can gently direct our attention to the humbly steadfast, sustaining qualities of daily life.
Collins''s latest book, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (Random House, $21.95), plumbs the events, objects and moods of daily life and finds in them occasions for humor, reflection and sadness--often all at the same time. Opening with a poem about a neighbor''s barking dog, who is transformed in the poet''s exasperated imagination into an orchestral soloist performing Beethoven, this magical collection is filled with poems begging to be spoken aloud. Some of the poems, such as "Victoria''s Secret," are laugh-out-loud funny, whereas others employ their humor to evoke sadness. "The Death of the Hat" begins as a whimsical reminiscence of the time when all men wore hats, but ends with the recent death of the poet''s father, who, "after a life of work, / wears a hat of earth, / and on top of that, / a lighter one of cloud and sky--a hat of wind."
Collins once said in an interview, "I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I''m talking to." That conversational style--respectful and friendly to the reader--has attracted Collins criticism from some who feel his work is overly simplistic. One New York critic sourly described Collins as someone who "happened to get pretty handy" with "a pile of those poetry refrigerator magnet sets." This attitude displays a disdain not so much for the Poet Laureate himself as for his many readers who are grateful for Collins''s tender, occasionally mischievous voice. Like the "dark voice" of one of the poet''s beloved jazz singers, the poems of Billy Collins "curl around / the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness / like no one else''s can."
US Poet Laureate Billy Collins will give a free public lecture at 8pm on Friday, Feb. 15 in the Performing Arts Center of Santa Catalina School, 1500 Mark Thomas Drive, Monterey. Free, reservations required. 655-9310.
You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.
You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scale
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune.
As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction.
Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do next with your ounce.
How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity
157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.
Man in Space
All you have to do is listen to the way a man
sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people
and notice how intent he is on making his point
even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver,
and you will know why the women in science
fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own
are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine
when the men from earth arrive in their rocket,
why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.
From Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House, 2001.