As a Challenge III tutor with Classical Conversations last year, I had the pleasure of studying poetry with my students. Besides our readings in The Roar on the Other Side, we discussed a poem a week. Since in our study of Cicero, we also became familiar with many rhetorical devices, we engaged with the poems on many levels. When it came time for their end-of-year Bluebook exam, I included a poem by Billy Collins, asking them to write about what they observed. Here is what I thought of it.
“The Trouble with Poetry” by Billy Collins:
The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —
to be perfectly honest for a moment —
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.
At the water’s edge, where land meets sea and sea meets sky, the uncluttered horizon allows thoughts room to expand. The author is irritated, as an oyster is with a grain of sand, and he works it and works it until he has smoothed it with his insights and created a pearl. “The trouble with poetry is…”, he begins, gets distracted, but returns to the niggling thought. He finally spits out in amused exasperation, that poetry begets more poetry.
Why is this a problem?
One can never rest and be done. Poetry demands a response. The reader feels compelled to roll up his sleeves and, as it were, knead a loaf of bread, lay row of stones, or cook a gourmet meal. Art calls to art. Beauty’s effect is to create a restless desire for beauty.
“And how will it ever end?” he asks, as though property taxes have gone up yet again, or his friend pleads for another loan that will not be repaid. He engages in hyperbole, imaging a day when everything has been compared to everything else, when all our insights about the world have already been aptly explained by a perfect metaphor and there is nothing else to contribute. He illustrates with the good student’s pose of repose: sitting with hands folded on our desks because we have done everything there is to be done. This good-girl posture is in contrast to the messy begetting of poetry, the cold wave swirling at the feet, the bouncing bunnies and random guppies, and the breaking in to steal from others.
“And how will it ever end?” It is the question you ask when you are dangerously addicted to a behavior that will eventually give you grief. He utters this in deadpan concern and it makes me smile. All right, so his writing and reading of poetry leads him to more writing and more reading, links of a chain that has no end. If that is his burden, it is also his delight. A poem can perfectly clothe an idea in a metaphor, and if a writer ‘steals’ this to build on it, it is the theft that shows up at a potluck as a tasty variation on a dish once offered by another cook.
We see in the end that poetry for him was a place of delight and retreat as he moved “up and down the treacherous halls of high school.” Not only does poetry create in him desire to write, but this writing is his salvation. It is his energizing joy and his safe sorrow.
Poetry is mimesis, an imitation or image of an idea; we clothe an insight with familiar garments to express the unknown by the known, the difficult-to-grasp by the common, the je ne sais quoi by the voila!
And so, fear at the sight of a snake is “zero at the bone“.
In spring, a slender April rill “...flashes tail through last year’s withered brake/
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.“
Even onomatopoeia helps us catch what we may not have noticed: “The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn/And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn…”.
Read poetry. And then write some.