Sunday Poetry: Forgetfulness, by Billy Collins


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

– Billy Collins

Last Sunday, I wrote about William Shakespeare, universally recognized by critics as one of the best writers ever to write in the English language. Today, I present Billy Collins, who attracts the loathing of academics, but the love of the untutored masses. Billy Collins has served as the poet laureate of the United States, and yet the tweed crowd declares that, “Collins is much less interesting than kitsch,” and ask “The world can stand one Billy Collins, but what happens when everyone writes poems that humiliate the art they practice?”. Horror of horrors, they declaim him as a “crowd-pleaser”.

Fortunately, the controversy over Billy Collins is not what makes him interesting – the controversy merely demonstrates (again) the irrelevance of those who believe they have rescued poetry and are sequestering it in an ivory tower. Rae Armantrout, however, is no Rapunzel, and the “protectors” of poetry are shocked that Billy Collins is the one attracting crowds of suitors.

Billy Collins has earned a PhD in English, and appears in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, yet he writes in the language of every day. He could be next to you at a counter in a diner, and you wouldn’t notice that he’s a whole lot smarter than the laborer on your other side, yet you would be attracted by his wit and conversation. He’s that guy, the one who says smart things without resorting to smart words.

Unlike most of the poets I love, Billy Collins does not embrace the rhymes and rhythms of classical, technical poetry. In fact, in one poem he even mocks me for my love of traditional form:

Sonnet – Billy Collins

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Collins won’t give me the iambic bongos I crave in poetry, but he manages to achieve a different rhythm that I have to acknowledge. It doesn’t scan quite as well as the pages of metronomic “da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH” I cranked out in college, but I can’t deny that he does have a rhythm. It comes together like the sound of friendly coversation – I cannot deny there is a music there even if I cannot pin it down on an English major’s page.

As for meaning – it’s there, and it has the multi-level reward that distinguishes great poetry from good verse. In Forgetfulness, for example, you understand on first blush that it’s about what the title promises. And, for those of us over 30 or so, it captures brilliantly that sense of words that won’t come to the tongue when summoned, and facts that you know you know but cannot call to mind. On one level, it’s a wonderfully clever observation of how it feels to forget.

But there’s sooo much more going on here. Take, for instance, the frightening first line. “The name of the author is the first to go” – in a poem by an author. Is he talking about complete oblivion for himself? Until the end of the stanza, we don’t quite know that he is simply describing the process of forgetting a book. And, from there, we’re off on a catalog of things forgotten. Subtly, the poem builds, from intellectual trivia (nine Muses) through the geography of the world we live in (uncle’s address and Asunción) to death and love. There is something deep stirring in Billy Collins’ cute little poem, and those who read it with a chuckle might not chuckle upon a second reading. It’s there, it’s there, even though Collins isn’t smacking you upside the head to find it.

I’ll close this examination of Billy Collins with another of his poems, and one that seems appropriate on the Sunday before we expel a torturing regime from the White House, when we are thinking about popular poetry versus the poetry/industrial complex that exists in our universities.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

(To hear Billy Collins read “Forgetfulness” and a bunch of other poems, visit this site.)

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