From cold stones sparks of fire do fly
Notes on Poetry
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Billy Collins latest book - Ballistics (Random House, 2008) - continues his line of light accessible wit. Lines from his poem on Liu Yong (柳永) "If only he appreciated life / in eleventh-century China as much as I do" illustrate well the charm of the self-mocking tone he typically adopts. The slightness or lightness of the occasion of some poems reminds me a little of John Ciardi (for example Ciardi's poem on a neighbour complaining about his dog soiling her garden). Collins' title poem is in the entertaining tradition of poems on the less-than-charitable thoughts a poet might harbour towards other poets. Clive James' psalm-like 'The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered' is one of the best of this mini-genre; there's also August Kleinzahler's 'An Autumnal Sketch' which describes professors, "sensitive men paunchy with drink" parked where the suburb ends waiting like hunters for a duck:
... They will take it and make it their own, something both more than a duck and less.
They so badly want a poem, these cagey and disheartened men ...
Collins describes a photograph of a bullet passing through a book; the poem ends:
But later, as I was drifting off to sleep, I realized that the executed book was a recent collection of poems written
by someone of whom I was not fond and that the bullet must have passed through his writing with little resistance
at twenty-eight hundred feet per second, through the poems about his childhood and the ones about the dreary state of the world
and then through the author's photograph, through the beard, the round glasses, and that special poet's hat he loves to wear.
The Georgia State University digital archive contains a version of this poem where the penultimate stanza is missing. Presumably the stanza was added later, and it brings an energy and vividness to the close of the poem both in focusing on the violence of the bullet by describing its velocity in precise mathematical language, and also in depicting the conventional subjects of the target's work.