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By Billy Collins
New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002
ISBN # 978-0-375-75519-4
172 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2013

Billy Collins seems to me a poet who writes poems for the sake of poetry itself -- the language, the expression, the images. I read some poets who are intellectually profound or with great sensibility of meaning of life or pain or joy or . . . But Collins seems to write for the poetry itself, the manner of expression, the images created. In general I think I ultimately prefer what I might call the poets of profound meanings, yet each time I’ve come to one of Collins’ books I have enjoyed myself, read with delight, often with a smile or an inner “wow” over some image or line. I don’t think he’s ever challenged anything about my view of the world or reality. He is what he is and I am very thankful that he writes and publishes.

The opening poem just delighted me to no end. “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” is about a barking dog that disturbs the poet, so he turns on a Beethoven symphony and plays it as loud as he can, but the dog barks even louder and soon enters into the symphony, winning its chair along with the orchestra. My brother lives next door to me and has exactly the dog of the poem, so, of course, I strained brotherly relations by hurrying over to his house to read him the poem.

“My number,” as in “my number is up” is a marvelous short poem about approaching death. But “Schoolville” had me laughing out loud. It is an inside job about the way universities were, with an emphasis on the “were.”

“The Death of Allegory” is a wonderful meditation on the contrasts of time; allegories dominating art and literature of the past, practical items which are lower case letters dominating the upper case.

“Forgetfulness” begins:

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 become one you have never read, never even heard of . . .

This poem was a joy to me. I am one who forgets in almost the exact manner he describes and if I didn’t write about each book I read and then check my next book before I begin, I would be rereading books all the time.

Some of these poems were in other volumes of Collins which I had already read, but as “Forgetfulness” suggests, I mainly read them as though I had never heard them before. However, that’s not true of “On Turning Ten.” This is funny and cute and I remembered it well. In part it reads:

“You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

He follows through to his tenth birthday, which is supposedly when the poet is writing.

I recognized other real favorites in this work – “Budapest”, the marvelous “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” “Marginalia” and “Splitting Wood.”

However, there were also many new poems to me which will now rise to the level of favorites such as “Dharma” about his dog, and then his playfulness with poetry by writing the poem “Sonnet” which is about writing a sonnet and is itself in sonnet form.

“Serenade” was stunning. I don’t know if the musician would win the woman he is trying to woo with his playing, but clearly the poet would win her with this poem.

Another hilarious poem is “Three Wishes” which mocks the old notion of “what if you had three wishes . . .” In the end it takes him 7 to get his wish for the day.

Perhaps “The Movies” is the poem that best speaks of the form of much of the collection. Like going to the movies, Collins is a spectator of life. He observes it, writes about it, but is never in danger, never involved, but at a distance writing about life in all its manifestations.

The collection is a delight to read, and happily for me, I can come back to it relatively soon since I will have forgotten most of the poems and can enjoy then as though they were newly written.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett