I (Used to) Hate Poetry!

 I Hate Poetry

I hate poetry.
Flowery phrases forming phlegmatic facets
Run-on sentences defying punctuation
Fragments with as many meanings as choices on a Chinese menu
Mixed metaphors, silly similes
Secret symbols must be deciphered
Why can’t a cigar be a cigar?

I hated poetry because I didn’t understand it. It seemed like poets went out of their way to make their ideas inscrutable. Maybe they did this on purpose to make themselves seem more important or to make their scholarly club more exclusive. Why, the lines didn’t make grammatical sense or form complete ideas. And talk about run-on! By the time you reached a period (if ever), you’d have forgotten the beginning of the idea!

Witness this excerpt from “Anniversary,” by Marie Ponsot:

The big doll being broken and the sawdust fall
all scattered by my shoes, not crying
I sit in my dark to discover o failure annulled
opens out in my hands a purse of golden
salvaged sovereigns, from floors of seas culled.

Ponsot’s work has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and she has published several collections of poetry. Nevertheless, this stanza, even in the context of the larger poem, confounds me.

Some people told me I didn’t have to understand a poem to appreciate it. I could enjoy the sounds of the words, the rhythms. That’s like enjoying hearing people speak Italian. It sounds beautiful, but I still feel stupid not knowing what they’re saying.

Until…

So I avoided poetry. Until Billy Collins showed me a whole different world of poetry. During his tenure as U. S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003), Collins visited Rowan University, where I was a graduate student. As he read his poems aloud, a packed house nodded in understanding, chuckled as they “got” puns and ironies, and laughed again and again at the everyday truths Collins brought to life.

“Victoria’s Secret” was an audience favorite:

The one in the upper left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
and easy side-zip tap pants.

His poems unfolded in regular sentences, and one after another, the sentences told stories. They didn’t always end as you expected, as here in “The Country”:

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.

The poem went on to imagine a single “fire-starter” mouse, a “blue tip” between the “needles of his teeth”…

Listening to Billy Collins was like listening to your favorite Irish uncle telling tales with a bit of the blarney. Details you’d never have thought of on your own and perspectives you’d never have thought to have taken created the poetic magic.

In “Snow Day,” Collins recounted every schoolkid’s dream literally, then went deeper, looking at it metaphorically:

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
Its white flag waving over everything…

I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed…

He ended the poem by noting three girls by the fence and wondering what they were plotting, and “which small queen is about to be brought down.”

Collins Works on Multiple Levels–Like Shrek

It is this ability to make his poems work on so many levels that makes me want to read and reread Collins’s poems. I often use the analogy of the Shrek movies, where there is physical comedy for kids (Shrek farting, Fiona burping), irreverent humor for adults (Snow White isn’t “easy” even though she lives with seven men), songs from teens’ (“I’m A Believer”) and adults’ eras (“On The Road Again”), and lines from (“That’ll do, Donkey, that’ll do” suggests a line from the movie Babe) and scenes reminiscent of other movies (Fiona’s fight scene with the Merry Men suggests The Matrix) that adults are challenged to pick up on.

You can read and enjoy Collins’s poems literally for their stories. Bet you want to know what’s going to happen next in “Flames”:

Smokey the Bear heads
Into the autumn woods
With a red can of gasoline
And a box of matches.

You can also enjoy listening to the poems’ sounds. In “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House,” repetition of the word “bark” throughout lets the reader experience first-hand the annoyance of the barking dog:

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

You can dig deeper into Collins’ metaphors and imagery, as you might examine the war references in “Snow Day.” What does the “anarchic cause of snow” have to do with the closing of the “Peanuts Play School” and “what riot is afoot” there?

An even more complex level would have you analyzing symbolism. In warning the narrator in “The Country” to lock up those blue-tips, who and what is the character “you” really alluding to? Do the matches symbolize something larger?

Finally, what personal angels and demons does Collins poke? In what ways do his poems resonate with you? Do they touch you in hard places? Do they bring smiles, remembering? Do you squirm as he shows you topics from perspectives that embarrass or annoy? What was your reaction to “Victoria’s Secret”? How about “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House”?

Poetry Has Changed My Life

Since Billy Collins introduced me to poetry, I have read thousands of poems and written hundreds of my own. I did gobs of research and eventually taught beginning poetic techniques in college creative writing courses. A poem like Ponsot’s still makes me feel like an idiot, but my repertoire has grown to include many wonderful modern poets—Komunyakaa, OliverLaux, Olds, Kooser, Harding, Howe, Bishop, Levertov, Kenyon, Brown, Angelou… I also have expanded my appreciation of the immortals—Frost, Thomas, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Yeats, Neruda, Browning, Hughes, Kipling, Byron, Blake

I wrote many of my poems after the death of my son. I found poetry to be the medium that best expressed my grief. Here is the rest of my poem from the opening of this post:

Alas, I understand.
Poetry harbors passion too intense to leave exposed and vulnerable,
Too painful to speak unveiled,
Too beautiful to leave unadorned.
Poetry speaks the language of ecstasy and grief
Where nothing is clear
And emotions compete and conflict
And images transcend words.

Would that I never learned this language.

I hope Billy Collins opens your eyes to poetry, too. What will you do with it?

Some links you might like:
http://billycollinspoetry.com
http://billycollinspoetry.com/books
https://www.facebook.com/BillyCollinsPoetry
Video: Billy Collins: “Two poems about what dogs think (probably)”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOvbl3ZPPV4

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