Usually, at night, you can find me lying in my bed watching a show on my phone. I’ve plowed through Schitt’s Creek (adored Alexis), I May Destroy You (phenomenal), The Undoing (eeps); you name it, I’ve seen it. But last night, my eyes were tired of staring at a screen, so I cuddled up and read this…
Whale Day by Billy Collins. Have you read his poems? They are funny, surprising, conversational, profound. And you get drawn right in. “I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem,” Collins once said. “Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.”
I don’t usually lie around reading poetry, but I was amazed by the feeling it gave me. Relaxed, content, inspired. My breath slowed down. It felt physically good.
And it’s funny because I was originally planning to start a novel last night, but happened to pick Collins’s book of poems from the shelf instead. In an interview with The Paris Review, Collins said, “One of the differences between being a novelist and a poet is that the novelist kind of moves into your house. I mean, it takes three days or three weeks to read a novel. I think of the novelist as a houseguest. The poet is more someone who just appears. You know, a door opens, and there’s the poet! He says something about life or death, closes the door and is gone. Who was that masked man? I like that kind of sudden appearance. Not overstaying your welcome, you might say.”
At times, I laughed; at times, I clutched my heart. When asked if he had a concept of the reader, he said, “She’s this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I’m hoping that she’ll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did. No, the reader for me is someone who doesn’t care about me or has no vested interest. I start the poem assuming that I have to engage his or her interest. There is no pre-existing reason for you to be interested in me and certainly not in my family, so there must be a lure at the beginning of a poem. I want the reader to be in the sidecar, ready. Then off we go.”
Off we go, indeed!
Do you remember ages ago we talked about memorizing poems? I would love to memorize one — or maybe a few — Billy Collins poems. A reader named Lauren once said, “My professor at Columbia called this kind of memorization investing in your own ‘mental furniture.’ He had memorized most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and he loved the idea that he’d always have those words as furniture in his head for his thoughts to sit on, even in old age.”
Here’s the one I’d memorize, I think, although it’s impossible to choose between his poems, like naming a favorite child.
No man is lonely while eating spaghetti. — Christopher Morley
This time, I was at a corner table at Pasta Vivace!
on that side street next to the old music store.
The place was not at all crowded.
Just enough young men and women
were coming and going to keep me
occupied as I sipped my Campari and soda
and waited for the waiter to arrive with my pasta.
I imagined what the parents of all these people
were doing this evening,
then I thought of all of the diners as babies
with looks of amazement on their tiny faces.
Then as they kept arriving and departing,
holding the door for one another,
they turned into skeletons in their caskets,
each being carried by six husky pallbearers,
who would also be dead by now,
as I would be before too long,
for death is the magnetic north of poetry.
But first, I must insist on having the pleasure
of eating my linguini con vongole,
dipping chunks of crusty bread into the briny sauce.
for this is also a poem about happiness,
a celebration of the senses
and of all the men and women coming and going.
And if you turn your head a little this way,
you can see me at a corner table,
twirling the pasta with a fork and spoon
like an infant with a bib tucked under his chin.
Thoughts? Do you ever read poems? Do you have a favorite? Please share below, I would love to hear…
(Photo of I Love Lucy.)