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Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles -- Billy Collins

(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.
-- Billy Collins
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 [1]. 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".


[1] 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!


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]

[Links] 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
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,

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