Poetry and Poets: October 2008 Archives

A New Poem


I knew that someday the image would make sense, the experience would have meaning.

Fox Ascending

The other day
I saw a fractal
oval white cloud
nailed to the bleached
blue sky like a day-
old fox corpse clinging
to a farmer's fence.

An imagist poem juxtaposing images separated in time by 25 or so years--one of a brilliant white oblong/oval cloud that sat suspended and motionless in the sky, seeming isolated and alone, nothing about it but long stretches of blue sky. And then a barbed wired fence surrounding a farmer's field in western Virginia near West Virginia. On it a row of foxes. I was told that it was a practice designed to keep other foxes away. But if so, it did not seem efficacious as there were already several there. But then, I don't have the wisdom of experience, so I couldn't presume to say. Either way, it has found its way into a hundred different poems. This is the first in which I thought it successful. (Not that the poem is--it needs work--overly burdened in the first few lines and plodding--I have to think more about the cloud and see if I can distill it more.)

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I was speaking with a friend about Billy Collins last week. This person pointed out that there is remarkably little substance in some of Mr. Collins's poetry. And that is a fair evaluation. Some of them are sheer fluff--not the stuff of eternity, hardly, one might say, the stuff of fifteen minutes.

However, it is important to bear in mind that for a poet every poem stands in the same place as a novel does for a novelist. That is not to imply equity of effort and endeavor, but rather the fact that each new poem rises to the surface and it is a tabula rasa, ripe and ready to move into meaning or into play. While some of Mr. Collins's poems are undoubtedly slight--they play and they show us play in a wonderful, liberating way--there is play with language, image, and individual words. Is it profound? Probably not, but it is meaningful and it does give a sense of diversity to the poems--it reflects mood and moment--there is no attempt to hide from what is happening at the time the poem is written, nor is there the false pose of many classic poets that seeks to enshrine poetry in a kind of unbreakable plastic case.

I would rather a thousand Billy Collins's with his occasionally excesses and underplays, than ten other lofty, portentous, and ultimately pretentious poets.

Yes, some poems are slight--but in what I have read so far, they are more than balanced by poems that make sudden turns and poems that, while slight at the surface slip in past the defenses to make a statement. That is poetry of worth--poetry that means despite the fact that we have all of our defenses up.

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I Can Sympathize


from The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
tr. David Hinton

The Way It Is

Faint shadow, a house, and traces of rain.
In courtyard depths, the gate's still closed

past noon. That lazy, I gaze at moss until
its azure-green comes seeping into robes.

Yep, been there, done that, and I have the souvenirs still here about my person.

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Ballistics--Billy Collins


This newest collection of the poetry of Billy Collins highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his ability. The notable poems in the collection deal with the details of everyday life and illuminate the human experience in such a way as to surprise and delight us. This is the final effect of poetry. There should be a little aha, an amused laugh, or a sudden piercing insight--not necessarily of anything terribly important, but just a way of looking at something that hadn't been considered before.

As a poet, Collins has a way of hijacking his own poems and taking them off to some other place. For example, in the poem "Dublin," there are exactly two stanzas devoted to anything about Dublin, the remainder being dedicated to an exhibit of the Codex of Leonardo. This is not a bad thing--it is part of the poet's rhythm and surprise. And when it works, it works wonderfully well, to help you see things in a different way.

Sometimes the very good may be a trifle overplayed as in this example from "Despair."

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,

While it provokes a laugh and certainly rounds out the point of the poem, it may be over the top. (Note, may be. I like the poem so much that I'm not certain I'm willing to admit that point yet.)

The poems that speak most to me are those that highlight the magic implicit in everyday life. I quoted in an earlier entry from the poem "Tension." Poems such as "Searching," "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant," and "Looking Forward" are other examples. The middle poem also indulges in a bit of subject-hijacking I spoke of earlier.

References to previous poets abound. Bloom, if he chose to direct his attention this way would relish the anxiety of influence so obvious in some selections. For example, the title "The Idea of Natural History at Key West," and an explicit mention in "August" reveal the influence of Wallace Stevens. In "No Things" we are threated by a "Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat." Ovid, Paul Valéry, Charles Lamb, Juan Ramon Jiminez, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Amy Lowell, and (I think) Randall Jarrell all make guest appearances as well.

A collection worth some time and attention--at time humorous and slight, humorous and gigantic, but almost always joyous with a real sense of play and delight in language that should be a Poet's hallmark.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from October 2008.

Poetry and Poets: September 2008 is the previous archive.

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