Monday, May 2, 2011

Horoscopes For The Dead by Billy Collins

Available at Amazon
Every couple of years, when the Olympics start playing again on my television, I always have the same thought: "They make it look so easy!"

Whether I'm watching a gymnast tumbling & skipping through her floor routine or a ski-jumper executing some impossible freestyle stunt before sticking his landing, I actually entertain the thought, "That doesn't look so hard!"

Of course, on an intellectual level, I know I could never even attempt such feats, even were I to train for years. But the fluidity and grace these incredible athletes exhibit is like an optical illusion, masking the difficulties they endure & overcome in their pursuit of their discipline.

The poetry of Billy Collins is like this. It looks so easy. The language and tone he uses are simple & conversational. His images are similarly familiar & ordinary. Yet his poems contain riches that even the most opaque high-modernist could only aspire to. And, more often than not, Collins's poems are funny, too.

Take, for instance, the poem, "What She Said," from his new collection, Horoscopes for the Dead. Using the voice of a young woman on a failing date, Collins takes the most common of colloquialisms ("give me a break") and repeatedly whips the reader with it in a comic evocation of exasperation that makes head-shaking use of yet another colloquialism in its title.
Billy Collins: a serious poet who takes nothing seriously
But Horoscopes for the Dead is perhaps the least overtly comic of Billy Collins's numerous collections. In this latest book, the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States seems more concerned with mortality than ever, opening with a lovely poem ("Grave") that posits a man visiting his deceased parents' gravesite and having a kind of conversation that becomes a meditation on the vast & silent gulf between the living and the dead.

But all is not gloom and doom (though there is an especially evocative poem called, "Memento Mori," which contains the wonderful lines, "And the realization that no one/who ever breasted the waters of time/has figured out a way to avoid dying," before winding up with the speaker sitting in what I hope must be a cheerful bar in Cocoa Beach). Collins just can't help injecting what amounts to gentle smiles into even his most clear-eyed gazes unto the void which awaits us all.

Now, I always get a queasy feeling when I'm explicating a poem. I think such activity is akin to explaining a joke. The best poems are greater than any explanation of them, which is a notion that Billy Collins himself made poetically real in his great (and often-quoted) poem, "Introduction to Poetry," wherein a teacher exhorts his students to enjoy a poem, even as they torture it.

See, even when tackling the most serious of subjects, whether it's the subject of poetry itself or the larger subject of mortality, Collins is able to see their comic side. He is constantly whistling past the graveyard, as it were.

Take also, for instance, the poem, "Cemetery Ride," from the last section of Horoscopes for the Dead, wherein a bike-ride through a cemetery becomes a kind of wry census of the human race as the speaker of the poem converses with the interred, inviting them by name to join him on his bicycle while imagining their responses. In this poem, the dead come off as merely stodgy rather than truly departed.

But my personal favorite poem from Horoscopes for the Dead is "Drawing You From Memory," a poetic expansion of the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It ends, of course, with a comedic reversal. To say more would deflate the joke.

Nowadays, poetry of the kind that Collins creates (constructions of words meant to be read by a reader and/or spoken by an unaccompanied voice) is a fringe art, unless, of course, you choose to include the words that are sung or rapped in today's popular music. (For the most part, I don't.) But if more poets could do what Collins does (i.e., create poetry that is both accessible, beautiful, and truly meaningful), then poetry might return to the center of contemporary culture. (Could you imagine an "American Idol" for aspiring poets?)

I wonder if I'll live long enough to see if it ever does. In the meantime, I'll console myself with Horoscopes for the Dead. You should, too.

1 comment:

  1. Astrology is not against God. I think most horoscopes you read in papers are a bit of fun, but ultimately useless. But "real" astrology is actually what has convinced me that the universe was created with beauty and perfection. Real astrology has made me more a believer in God than reading the Bible ever did.sternzeichen