Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

May 5, 2013

On Poetry: Poetry harnesses ordinary life

I chose a poem by Billy Collins only a year ago, and there are SO many more poets I could introduce you to! The last time was in spring also. I think I start feeling a little silly and springy and he’s who I think of.

Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Popular? He’s a rock star among those who otherwise don’t read much poetry. I think it’s that he’s able to fasten ordinary language and ordinary life in general into the harness of poetry and hold us there.

The poet Stephen Dunn (who, by the way, was recently a guest poet at Interlochen) has said, “We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going. I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn’t hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered.”

Collins says he doesn’t like it when people describe his poems as “accessible,” implying that they’re easy. Well, they are, in a way. But “easy” the way a good comedian is “easy.” His comic timing is perfect. He knows when to shift from the seriousness of “oblivion” to the amusingly ordinary fact of forgetting how to swim or ride a bicycle.

Like a comedian, he seems to be speaking of all of us in general, but he brings us into the particulars until we feel we’re there with him as he’s having those private thoughts each of us is a little ashamed to admit we have. Having that forgetfulness we’re both worried and embarrassed about. We hear the poem, smile, and sigh with relief — Oh! it’s not just me. It’s him. It’s all of us.

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