After reading Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, Billy Collins stuck in my head as someone to further explore. I enjoyed his poem The Lanyard, which was J.J. Abrams’ choice for the collection, but I also really liked Collins’ choice, Bedecked by Victoria Redel. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and while I don’t actually know what that is, it does sound very impressive.
So while we were in Portland last year, I picked up this small collection of his. There were poems in this that I did really enjoy, but I felt a little underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. There were maybe half a dozen poems I marked down to return to while reading through this, and the rest just really didn’t strike me in any way. He can be hilarious at times, and I love that, but a lot of these felt more like unsuccessful exercises in trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I’m not going to write him off completely, as I know there are some of his poems that I really do enjoy, and maybe this was just the wrong collection for me. I find it tricky to actually pick out poetry and find the best place to start with each poet. On our way home from Portland, we were taking a taxi in Seattle to the ferry terminal, and I got to talking with the driver. He was a big poetry buff, it turned out, and when I mentioned I’d picked up a Billy Collins book he mentioned he wasn’t a fan. I asked what he recommended, and apart from briefly mentioning Robert Frost, he was mainly enthusiastic about poetry anthologies, even naming Kenneth Rexroth and Oscar Williams as two of his favourite anthologists. Maybe I should take that advice and stick to anthologies for a while.
The few I did like, I really liked. Some of my favourites were: Divorce, Old Man Eating Along in a Chinese Restaurant, Ballistics, and Adage.
Here’s the title poem, which turned out to be one of my favourites. I’m an easy sell on bitterness and snark, though.
When I came across the high—speed photograph
of a bullet that had just pierced a book —
the pages exploding with the velocity —
I forgot all about the marvels of photography
and began to wonder which book
the photographer had selected for the shot.
Many novels sprang to mind
including those of Raymond Chandler
where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.
Nonfiction offered too many choices —
a history of Scottish lighthouses,
a biography of Joan of Arc and so forth.
Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,
the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain
and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.
But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written
by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance
at twenty—eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world,
and then through the author’s photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.