There's a joy in finding a Billy Collins poem nestled among the pompous, arcane stuff that clogs the typical anthology of contemporary...
“The Trouble with Poetry”
by Billy Collins
Random House, 88 pp., $22.95
by Wendell Berry
Shoemaker & Hoard, 160 pp., $22
There’s a joy in finding a Billy Collins poem nestled among the pompous, arcane stuff that clogs the typical anthology of contemporary verse. Poem after poem about … Well, what are they about? After reading half a dozen, you begin to suspect that whatever the ostensible subject, what they’re really about is how much smarter the poet is than you are.
And then, like the voice of your friendly uncle who didn’t care if your grades weren’t quite as good as they should have been, a Billy Collins poem: “I am under the covers / waiting for the heat to come up / with a gurgle and hiss / and the banging of the water hammer / that will frighten the cold out of the room.” Familiar words in recognizable order, a scene with which anyone can identify, and a jagged right-hand margin to assure us that this is indeed a poem — it’s a calm harbor away from those tossing seas of intellectual rigor.
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But the poem offers more than relief from willfully obscure verse. The poet tells us all he’s doing as he lies there: listening to music, stroking his dog’s head, writing this very poem. Yet he knows that doing so many things at once means doing nothing particularly well, and as he rises and prepares for the day he resolves to be “freshly dedicated to doing one thing at a time,” even something as humble as focusing on each tooth as he brushes. It isn’t much of a triumph over the chaos of multitasking, but it’s as much as most of us get.
The trouble with “The Trouble with Poetry” is that three dozen or so poems celebrating such modest triumphs can seem too much, as if Collins is out to prove that no detail is too small, too mundane to hang a poem on. In “You, Reader,” he writes, “I was only thinking / about the shakers of salt and pepper / that were standing side by side on a place mat.” Maybe some of the minutiae of daily life are better left uncelebrated.
In over a dozen books of poetry, Wendell Berry has celebrated minutiae, but always his attention shows us that what we overlooked as too small to bother with was a crucial piece of something much larger, even infinite.
“Given” includes a generous selection of his Sabbath Poems, a series he has been writing for decades and in which he lifts poetry into prayer. Walt Whitman famously found universal truth in ordinary blades of grass; Berry shows that even the long-winded bard of Camden failed to exhaust its wonders. “The difference is a polished / blade, edgewise to the eye. / On one side gleams the sun / of time, and on the other / the never-fading light,” he tells us; “The blade that divides these lights / mirrors both — is one.”
Berry shows us that if we take anything as beneath our notice, the fault is ours. In a dialogue between an aging married couple, “Sonata at Payne Hollow,” the woman asks her husband, “You’ve never seen enough, have you, / of that river you looked at all your life?” He replies, “It never does anything twice.” It is that awareness, he suggests later, that will free a poet “to say only the simplest things.” And that insight, too, is the great gift of “Given.”