Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy Twosday

Happy Birthday to poet Billy Collins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim!  I love The Writer's Almanac, for its daily poems and birthday news. Today's poem is "Forgetfulness," by Billy Collins, and you can read it there, hear it, or both, and it does trace the loss of memory and also, coincidentally, nods to the Supermoon.

At Writer's Almanac, you can read brief stories of the development and careers of these two witty writers. Though Collins hung out with the Beat poets, he is identified now with charming domestic and "suburban" poems and often bashed by contemporary poets who are bored by his "accessibility," a bad word among some poets.

As for me, I enjoy accessible poems as well as less accessible poems, that need more unpacking, as they say, as long as there is something gripping there, something more than a virtuoso display of language or self.  As Collins says, "I don't think people read poetry because they're interested in the poet. I think they read poetry because they're interested in themselves." So Collins, writing honestly as himself, addresses a real reader and thus escapes the trap of self.

Mostly pleasant and unaffected in his poems, Collins allows himself some edge and annoyance in Ballistics, as if some of the criticism and negative opinion has gotten to him.  And wouldn't you know, this is a book people tend to like less? But I like that he can be as spiteful and petty, in spurts, as the rest of us. And he has a good answer to the charge of accessibility, too:

"I think clarity is the real risk in poetry because you are exposed. You're out in the open field. You're actually saying things that are comprehensible, and it's easy to criticize something you can understand."

And, of course, hard to criticize something you can't understand. So it tends not to get criticized. That, or meaning itself is given up by critics and poets alike, something else elevated in its stead.

Sondheim not only means, he rhymes! And does so with great sophistication and cleverness in songs that revolutionized musical comedy, using while twisting the prevailing conventions.

I wish I could say the two-pound weights were pertinent. They are not to suggest either writer is a lightweight. Nor to suggest that I am using 2-pound weights in my exercise class. I have shifted to 3-pound weights. Do you think that will make me a more muscular writer?


Maureen said...

Memorable quotes by Collins.

seana said...

Yep, definitely a more muscular writer.

I really like how Sondheim in Finishing the Hat makes clear the difference between a lyricist and a poet. They are different tasks. Although I may be misunderstanding him, I think he would say that a poem isn't helped by music, because it already 'sings' on its own.

Kathleen said...

"Already 'sings' on its own" makes sense to me, Seana. I would like to read that book and think I can borrow it from a friend! As he is a composer, too, he also knows how to match music and lyrics.

I do see some songwriters as poets. They do something a little different with the music. Music becomes an aspect of the form of the poem somehow. I see this with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Rickie Lee Jones, for example, and maybe Regina Spektor. I don't know her work well enough...

seana said...

Yes, I think that's a good qualification. Really he is saying that a lyric in a musical is not quite a poem, because it relies on music to make it work.

Cathy said...

I used to hate poetry. Whether the poet was self-congratulating or self-flagellating, the poems and the reader always seemed to be the last thing on his mind. Words on a page no one else could understand--who needs that?

A couple years ago, a writer on Writing.com changed my mind. Hers were mostly confessional poems, but they were comprehensible, and the way she put things said more because it wasn't so direct as prose. I discovered that poetry can be oblique, without being over the heads of readers.

I read her chapbook through, but also started listening more closely to song lyrics:

On my deathbed I will pray
to the gods and the angels
like a pagan to anyone
who will take me to heaven
to a place I recall
I was there so long ago
the sky was bruised
the wine was bled
and there you led me on

Hooked! This is how anti-poets turn into poetry readers.

DJ Vorreyer said...

Definitely Regina Spektor -listen to more and you won't be disappointed. My poem in the new Rhino is a direct response to my irritation with a line in a Ballistics poem called "details." I have a love/hate relationship with Collins!

Kathleen said...

Thanks for this discussion, all.

I am blown away by Regina Spektor, so I will be listening, and I look forward to your poem, Donna. To prepare, I just reread the Collins poem, "(detail)," about a woman looking at a book of poems and finding her favorite. The speaker says it is a detail of a larger painting, as if he is finding fault with her choice, but I think something else happens to him by the end. I hope so, anyway. That's the one, right?

Glad you are hooked, Cathy!