Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 5, 2013

On Poetry: Poetry harnesses ordinary life

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

So when I remember the time I couldn’t think of the name of a friend who was standing there waiting for me to sign her copy of my book and I’d been trying ever since she walked by earlier and said hello, I feel a little better.

When I try for the thousandth time to remember past the first stanza of even the short “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” I feel a little better. When I can’t remember the title of the book I’m currently reading, oh, thank goodness, Billy Collins — or the speaker in his poem, who is so close to being “him” I suspect he is — can’t either.

And that brings me to another thing: we do like to equate the speaker in a poem to the poet, when that seems possible. We like the personal, the “real,” the exactness of a singular person’s life. We like to know that someone can positively sing about something that we never would have thought was singable. What a joy, to have someone do that for us.

Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware.

For more of her work, and to see her website, go to



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.