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.

1 comment:

Laurie Duggan said...

My take on Clive James was:

'The Book of my Enemy
Has Been Remaindered'
has been remaindered

And one of the better comments I've heard on Billy Collins was that if you sliced the last third off most of his poems they would be improved.