Billy Collins accompanies me on my trips to the mirador these days.
The view up there is exactly the place to write poetry. Quiet. Stunning view. High and lifted up. Nature on the wing.
If not to write poetry, then to read it. And that is why Billy Collins comes along with me in my Kindle. I have been reading his most recent collection of poems (Ballistics) over the past few months. A poem at a time as it should be read.
My hands have not yet lost the muscle memory of holding a 1000 page biography. When books that size are reduced to the size of a Kindle, I feel vaguely cheated of an old endeavor. The medium does not seem to match the subject.
But the Kindle is perfect as a poetry reader. It is about the same size as a book of poetry. And its screen serves up the bits of concentrated thought that is poetry in easily-digested pieces.
Whenever I read Collins, I almost immediately sit down and start writing poems. Admittedly, they are too Collinsesque to be anything more than derivative. I could call them compliments, but they verge on theft in the noon day sun.
I get tempted every now and then to publish one or two here. But I know better. Poetry is death in blogs. And I am not certain why.
Well, I know why for most poems. Because they are painfully bad. The best amateurs tend to write poems that would make a 13-year old girl’s diary sound insightful.
But there is something more. Even the good poetry – the stuff of eternal values concerning the human condition that helps us see our own lives in a new light – sends most of us running for cover.
A lot of that reaction can be placed at the feet of high school teachers who sucked the joy out of literature and made it a task.
I was lucky to have an English teacher, Mrs. Metz, who loved word play and humor, and gleefully directed us to each little Shakespearean pun or Ogden Nash joke – teaching us first fun, and then leading us to the great wonders that could be ours simply by opening Milton or Frost or even that old humbug Whiman.
My poems are not good enough to share. But from time to time, I run across something that strikes a chord with me.
Billy Collins once pointed out poems (or literature in general) is all about one topic: death. Even when the poet is celebrating life itself.
I thought about that when I read “New Year’s Day” – a perfect example of how poetry can lightly lead us into the ultimate experience of our corporeal lives. I was originally going to provide excerpts. But it is a whole -- and deserves to be read that way.
New Year’s Day
Everyone has two birthdays
according to the English essayist Charles Lamb,
the day you were born and New Year’s Day—
a droll observation to mull over
as I wait for the tea water to boil in a kitchen
that is being transformed by the morning light
into one of those brilliant rooms of Matisse.
“No one ever regarded the First of January
with indifference,” writes Lamb,
for unlike Groundhog Day or the feast of the Annunciation,
New Year’s marks nothing but the pure passage of time,
I realized, as I lowered a tin diving bell
of tea leaves into a little ocean of roiling water.
I like to regard my own birthday
as the joyous anniversary of my existence,
probably because I was, and remain
to this day in late December, an only child.
And as an only child—
a tea-sipping, toast-nibbling only child
in a bright, colorful room—
I would welcome an extra birthday,
one more opportunity to stop what we are doing
for a moment and celebrate my presence here on earth.
And would it not also be a small consolation
to us all for having to face a death-day, too,
an X drawn through a number
in a square on some kitchen calendar of the future,
the day when each of us is thrown off the train of time
by a burly, heartless conductor
as it roars through the months and years,
party hats, candles, confetti, and horoscopes
billowing up in the turbulent storm of its wake.