Today – Billy Collins – Comments

Well spring is here in Australia and the initial thrust is now behind us but there were certain days that exploded in delight and Billy Collins uses this theme in a rather exaggerated way in the following poem –


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Billy Collins ( 1941 -

It is based on a Northern Hemisphere spring when snow is often around as spring makes itself known. Snow covered cottages are not really the scene in Australia.

Spring is certainly the time for getting outdoors and appreciating the environment and the changes in colour and the burst of growth. And if you have been locked up by winter and the virus just getting out in the sunshine is a real treat.

And there may be a day that you feel so elated and alive that, as Billy Collins suggests, you feel like releasing the inhabitants from their inside bondage. Breaking loose with poetical damage to the home. A very effective way of emphasising a state of high emotion. Setting the canary free so to speak.

Of course, not everybody may share your enthusiasm for getting out and about. But I must add it is now a delight to be out in the Canberra spring and in a virus free city.

Billy Collins on Wikipedia.

A peony in bloom seen at The Red Cow Farm at Sutton Forrest NSW.

Marginalia – Billy Collins – Analysis


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have manage to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Billy Collins

I do appreciate the annotations of others … especially in poetry where interpretation is so varied. Comments can be incisive, amusing as well as informative and appreciative.

Looking at this text …

S1 … we don’t like what is being said … we hate it … we want others to know it is a load of – … so anger may generate such a response

S2 … the text is studid, silly, child like … and you have to let the author know how silly and stupid he or she is … and a dismissive derisive word only takes a second to write

S3 … well students studying text need to expand and reinfore their new found learning … so this is quite justified of course

S4 … in agreement … the empty bleachers … they want you to know they are with you all the way  … but they are quite empty of their own thinking and probably they have only given a superfical read of your precious words

S5 and S6 … BC wants you to know that you should have annotated some book at some time in your life … and if not why not? … You can’t be that lazy!

S7 … it has happened all through history … and I love the lines … anonymous men catching a ride into the future /on a vessel more lasting than themselves. … so another reason – immortality

S8 … the great merit of annotations by the famous

S9 … this annotation takes the cake and the icing even though eggs are at issue … saying something entirely outside the text and about that one subject that is so important – love! – and at the same time giving an excuse for eating and reading with messy hands! – the line that’s remembered, the line that makes the poem perfect or should I say without stain!

So keep those comments flowing … it is so easy to do in today’s internet world. Those on Facebook and other social media are doing it everyday.

So why do we write in books? – well this is what I’ve just got to tell you – it’s all about self-expression and being heard … when you were in your young wet-concrete years I’m sure you were duly tempted … well, you don’t need to find a stick …  just use those fingers! … go on, my ear is waiting!  LoL

The History Teacher – Billy Collins – Analysis

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his student’s innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground and torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Billy Collins

This is essentially a list poem on innocence and the use of word-play in a fun interpretation to give that nice sense of humour behind the question on how we portray reality to children.

I tell the grand children that ‘global warming’ is all about the warm fuzzy generated because of the increase in world population.

But how do we protect children from the horrors that unfortunately exist – they will have to find out sometime that life has an uncomfortable side. They will have to come to terms with this aspect as they grow up. In the playground they already know that a nasty side exists so it won’t be a total shock.

But I think there is a natural tendency to keep that beautiful innocence in the young child by modifying and filtering input. All I can say is use your own judgement in your transactions and give balance so that both the white and the black are visible in some form. And I would add of course that we all know the ‘goodies’ always will win in the end!

And on a much more series note some protection is essential where damaging exclusive ideologies are perpetrated to seriously influence the gullible youth.

But back to the poem, looking at this History Teacher as he walks home in the closing text – past flower beds and white picket fences – we see that he is somewhat detached from the nasties of the world. Perhaps it is the History Teacher who wants to deny what is happening elsewhere and blindly colours his comfortable world in a camouflage of roses – his survival mechanism.

This poem reminds me of that wonderful 1997 Italian tragicomedy movie ‘Life is Beautiful’. Perhaps this is the only mechanism of survival in such dire circumstances as portrayed in this film – using the mind in the creation of another world.

Billy Collins was American Poet Laureate between 2001 and 2003 … a link to Wikipedia.

I ask you – Billy Collins

I ask you

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

Billy Collins – American Poet Laureate 2001 – 2003

I love how Billy Collins takes the ordinary in life and colours it with his wild imagination combining the seemingly disconnected everyday scraps of existence into a worthy world of word pleasure – laying his work before us in his own inimitable style – always there is a touch of the unusual in his offerings as well as a philosophical acceptance of the foibles in human nature – plus that essential ingredient subtle humour.

And looking at the above ‘I ask you’ poem. I do like poetry that poses a question – even if he is talking to himself – isn’t it marvellous when we are content where we are in life?

And considering the second stanza –

while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

And of course the world does sail on the ‘waters’ of the past – but hopefully we make a bit of headway as the future disappears behind us and we add to the flow – but let the world sail on – and not worry about all the problems that beset our troubled world!

He shows his poetic skill to give the contrast between a few moments in a kitchen compared to all history … and those few ordinary moments, where you have time to yourself and to think, can be so precious and rejuvenating in the busy world of today.

Enjoy your own presence in the warm comfort and intimacy of your own being – where ever you are – and so I ask you to just sit back for a few moments … and I hope you can take a deep breath and slowly say to yourself life is very agreeable, in fact quite beautiful!