Thursday, April 19, 2018

Loss lightened: Billy Collins reads his poems at Butler

I had Billy Collins autograph one of the two volumes of his poetry I own after his reading Wednesday night at Butler University. Among the striking things in "The Art of Drowning" (1995) is the epigraph. It seems rice-paper-thin in the usually weighty category of epigraphs, those brief borrowings often placed at the head of stories, articles, poems, and (as here) even whole books to lend an overarching meaning to what follows.
Billy Collins: Poetic master of reflective amusement that lightens loss

From the Japanese poet Shimaki Akahiko, the one for "The Art of Drowning" runs: "Where did that dog / that used to be here go? / I thought about him / once again tonight / before I went to bed."

After the Butler reading, the quotation seems apt as a clue to Collins' place as a popular poet — a thinly populated category of writer. The sidelong look at the environment, the taking notice of something missing, the casual tone — all are characteristics that Collins' muse apparently shares with Akahiko.

But hanging over the epigraph as well as much of Collins' poetry is the theme of loss. Poetry under a similar shadow is abundant, of course, but Collins' loss-shadow is flecked with amused contemplation. The Akahiko lines parallel a couplet on loss by Robert Frost: "The old dog barks backward without getting up. / I can remember when he was a pup."

Dealing with loss sometimes seems the major assignment life hands us. Collins is an old hand at handling it tenderly and whimsically. Sometimes this leads him into the kind of observations that seem so arbitrary you wonder where his "center" is, as man and poet. He often implies that doesn't matter.

In "Snow," a poem in the other Collins book I own, "Picnic, Lightning" (1998),  he starts out by musing on how "this slow [Thelonious] Monk solo / seems to go somehow / with the snow / that is coming down this morning." This is the kind of offhand attitude toward experience often illustrated by another popular poet, though one less consistently genial than Collins. Again, it's Robert Frost, in "Dust of Snow":

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued. 

The casual vaudeville of the natural world, one might call it, in shifting relationship with private experience, is a bridge between Collins and Frost, and also between Collins and a lot of Asian poetry. In Collins' "Snow" (which, fortunately, he did not read Wednesday), his tendency to think he has more to say than he really does grabs hold, so the poet continues to ponder what else the snow he's looking at goes with: "an adagio for strings, / the best of the Ronettes, / or George Thorogood and the Destroyers." Indeed, the way the snow "falls so indifferently" also turns out to go with the morning newspaper and Sartre's Being and Nothingness. The poem demonstrates that he ought to have heeded the wise answer  he recounted given by a first-grade teacher to the question why her pupils produced such good artwork: "I know when to take it away from them."

Snow drifts, we all know, and poets often do as well. The caustic critic Yvor Winters wrote an essay on Frost called "The Spiritual Drifter as Poet." Winters had a rather strict view of what's proper in poetry, and he found Frost's whimsy, which sometimes took the form of serious indecisiveness, rather trying. It's interesting that what some readers take as inspiring from Frost (and, by extension, from Collins) is an odd form of consolation that says: "Don't sweat the small stuff, and as for the large stuff, who knows what it means? Just throw out a few suggestions to yourself, and let it go."

"The Road Not Taken" is one of the Frost poems Winters is harsh about. The choice of which road to take "in a yellow wood" is said to make "all the difference," but the selection of the one slightly less traveled by is an instance of Frost's basic skepticism. There are so many choices we make that, in retrospect,  yield next to no evidence they were the better choice. I feel much more positive about the poem than Winters, yet less certain than many of its admirers that it embodies wisdom. Its charm lies in the near-indifference of its retrospection.

Collins is chary about wisdom, too, even though his humor is usually endearing, and more ready to be summoned than Frost's. The way Collins addresses loss sometimes gives you a lump in the throat. Sometimes it's just hilarious, as in the last poem he read at Butler — "Nostalgia," with its mockery of the tendency to take the fads and fashions of certain past decades as worth a nostalgic yearn or two or three, as the nostalgic pace accelerates up to "this morning."

If Collins is a spiritual drifter, that may not be worth regretting, but simply noting, as he invites us to. It's that Asian thing, perhaps. Here's a poem by the Chinese poet Shu Ting, whose poems, somewhat like Collins', "search the emotional life for signs of what lies beneath and beyond the self," in the words of the anthologist J.D. McClatchy in "The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry." The graceful translation is by Carolyn Kizer.

Here is a heart-shaped leaf
Picked up by a gentle hand
On a very special hillside
At the edge of a special wood.
It may not mean very much,
This leaf with its trace of frost

But still the leaf reminds me
Of a twilit avenue,
A mind crowded with thoughts
Released on a gentle breath
That scattered from my shoulders
The rays of the setting sun.

Again, on a special evening
That touch alights on me
Having grown heavy with meaning.
This time I can't deny it,
Deny that intimacy.

Now, when the wind rises
I am prompted to turn my head
And listen to you, leaf,
As you quiver on your twig.

That startling turn to the second-person pronoun in the last two lines is foreshadowed by the poet's realization that she "can't deny that intimacy."  Then you realize the intimacy has been there since the beginning. And all about a single leaf, one about to suffer the loss of its arboreal mooring. It's a cross-cultural Collins touch, with a more subtle kind of comedy to it, yet the same kind of pathos.