Do You Have a Favorite Poem?

Do You Have a Favorite Poem?

When I was 10, my best friend was 82…

Her name was Charlotte, and she was part of my mom’s book club. When I complimented her straw hat one afternoon, she invited me over for “tea and a poem.” My mom, of course, made me go. At first, I dreaded it. All my friends were selling Girl Scout cookies, and I was hanging out with Chaaaaarlotte.

But after a while, I started enjoying the (very caffeinated) English Breakfast tea she served. Even the poems she would choose felt welcoming and fun. They were always by Billy Collins, her favorite writer. “Delighted, overwhelmed and mystified,” she would exclaim after every reading, plopping three more sugar cubes into her already-sugared tea.

Here’s the first one Charlotte shared with me:

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

So great, right? (I also love how Billy Collins described his writing process, “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.”)

After Charlotte worked her way through Billy Collins’s entire collection, she simply started again. “It’s never the same poem, because you are never the same person you were when you first read it,” she told me. Delighted, overwhelmed and mystified, indeed.

What about you? If you have a favorite poem or a book you enjoyed lately, I’d love to hear…

P.S. On memorizing a poem, and seven great new books.

(Photo by Lena Corwin for Cup of Jo.)