(Poem #691) Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles
It seems these poets have nothing up their ample sleeves they turn over so many cards so early, telling us before the first line whether it is wet or dry, night or day, the season the man is standing in, even how much he has had to drink. Maybe it is autumn and he is looking at a sparrow. Maybe it is snowing on a town with a beautiful name. "Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune on a Cloudy Afternoon" is one of Sun Tung Po's. "Dipping Water from the River and Simmering Tea" is another one, or just "On a Boat, Awake at Night." And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with "In a Boat on a Summer Evening I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird. It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying My Woman Is Cruel--Moved, I Wrote This Poem." There is no iron turnstile to push against here as with headings like "Vortex on a String," "The Horn of Neurosis," or whatever. No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over. Instead, "I Walk Out on a Summer Morning to the Sound of Birds and a Waterfall" is a beaded curtain brushing over my shoulders. And "Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors" is a servant who shows me into the room where a poet with a thin beard is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine whispering something about clouds and cold wind, about sickness and the loss of friends. How easy he has made it for me to enter here, to sit down in a corner, cross my legs like his, and listen.
I just love the way today's poem implicitly echoes the conventions of the very same Chinese poems it explicitly pays tribute to - from the sparse, Imagistic words it uses to its own overly expressive title . I also like the dry humour of phrases like "the simple rice cake" and "up their ample sleeves", and the sardonic wit that came up with "Vortex on a String" and "The Horn of Neurosis" (!)... ... of course, the humour shouldn't mask the fact that Collins is making an important point about what he believes poetry should be and mean and do. Too often (especially these days), poets seem to speak only to other poets, or (even worse!) to academics and critics. And while I confess I like cleverness and intellectual games, I have to agree with Collins in castigating those who pursue obscurity for its own sake, who refuse to "[make it easy] to enter [a poem] / to sit down in a corner / cross my legs ... and listen". thomas.  form, content, self-reference, Imagism, the mystery of the Orient... wow, I managed to refer to all of my favourite critical hobby-horses in a single sentence! [Biography] Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. He is the author of six books of poetry, including Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998); The Art of Drowning (1995), which was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Questions About Angels (1991), which was selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series; The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988); Video Poems (1980); and Pokerface (1977). A recording of Collins reading thirty-three of his poems, The Best Cigarette, was released in 1997. Collins's poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper's, Paris Review, and The New Yorker. His work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Poetry for 1992, 1993, and 1997. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was chosen by the New York Public Library to serve as "Literary Lion." For several years he has conducted summer poetry workshops in Ireland at University College Galway. He is a professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York. -- The Academy of American Poets [broken link] http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=294. [Links] http://www.bigsnap.com/billy.html is a very comprehensive website dedicated to Billy Collins; it has links to several other of his poems. We haven't had a whole lot of Chinese poetry on the Minstrels, though check out Poem #70, Ezra Pound, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" Poem #504, Li Po, "About Tu Fu" Poem #683, Li Po, "To Tu Fu from Shantung" There are also several haiku by Basho, Buson and the like; see Poem #23, Poem #56 and Poem #277. And finally, the essay accompanying Geoffrey Hill's "A Prayer to the Sun", Poem #349, has more on the concept of 'necessary obscurity' in poetry. All this, and much much more, at the Minstrels website, http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/