Posts Tagged ‘Billy Collins’

poem is inside magazine in hotel bathroom


Baby Listening

by Billy Collins

According to the guest information directory,

baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.


Baby listening—not a baby who happens to be listening,

as I thought when I first checked in.


Leave the receiver off the hook

the directory advises,

and your infant can be monitored by the staff,


though the staff, the entry continues,

cannot be held responsible for the well-being

of the baby in question.


Fair enough, someone to listen to the baby.


But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,

lying there in the room next to mine

listening to my pen scratching against the page,


or a more advanced baby who has crawled

down the hallway of the hotel

and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.


Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.


Poetry want to have the baby who is listening at my door

as well as the baby who is being listened to,

quietly breathing by the nearby telephone.


And it also wants the baby

who is making sounds of distress

into the curved receiver lying in the crib


while the girl at reception has just stepped out

to have a smoke with her boyfriend

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.



Recently I googled I hate poetry and poetry sucks. (Professional curiosity or laundry avoidance? I leave it to you.)  While not as many people seem to hate poetry as hate Barry Manilow (let’s hope the poor fellow stays clear of internet searches), there’s still a sizable population who loathe and detest la poésie, a French word for poetry that I include to further annoy poetry-haters Merely hating poetry is not enough for these folks.  They seem to feel it’s necessary to create t-shirts, bumper stickers, websites, comedy routines and yes, even poems, to announce their feelings.


Online I found three objections to poets and poetry:

  1. Poets take themselves too seriously 
  2. Poetry is hard to understand
  3. Poetry is depressing


Shirley Temple by moviemag47Into this discussion let me introduce poet Billy Collins.  Collins is the Shirley Temple of the poetry world, impish, charming, irresistible, a goodwill ambassador come from a misunderstood country, winning over friends and allies with every production.


“Baby Listening” can serve as a response to the three objections outlined above.  To the charge that poets are pretentious and poems impenetrable, I say look how reader-friendly Collins is.  His language is clear, his tone conversational.  Collins has said that poems should “begin in clarity and end in mystery.”  The fact that this poem begins with the poet’s own confusion over the term “baby listening” does not contradict his modus operandi.  From the beginning the reader knows exactly what’s going on:  Collins is reading the directory of a seaside hotel off the coast of England or Scotland.


Collins has also spoken of the need to “establish hospitality” at a poem’s beginning to invite the reader in.  Let me help you into this poem, his tone seems to say, like a friendly stranger saying to an old lady, Let me help you into this taxi.  Then he buckles his reader in and the taxi takes off for a crazy ride.


But even with a writer as considerate and dedicated to clarity as Collins, reading poetry requires effort. Poetry haters are right that poetry isn’t always easy to understand.  We’re used to language that only means one thing at a time, and poetry feeds on ambiguity:

poetry is a  place . . .

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

In the worlds of law, science, math, and cooking, each word’s referent must be crystal clear and singular, else a lawsuit, explosion or failed exam may result.  Collins italicizes the legalistic wording of the hotel’s directory to highlight the difference between poetic and prosaic language.


Poetry’s magic, Collins says, is that all the babies in the poem can exist at once.  The  babies can be associations, connotations, images, meanings, or anything else that flashes in our brains when we read a line.


For example, notice how evocative the poem’s language becomes as we move from the clarity of the beginning to the mysteries of the end.  The baby cries into a “curved receiver.”  The curve suggests a mother, but the “mother” in this case is a girl earning an hourly wage who doesn’t take her responsibilities seriously.  She slips out, also unwatched by a mother (who probably would not approve of smoking and canoodling), to meet her boyfriend, and sex is in the air—

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.

The image sets a scene—something out of Local Hero, a favorite movie of mine—but also works to insert danger under the surface of the poem.  The dark ocean is so much bigger and more powerful than the helpless baby and the unhelpful girl that their safety is uncertain.


So why the danger and the darkness?  The poem began with such lightness and comedy, with sweet babies crawling down hotel hallways and pressing little ears to the wall.  Why does the poet have to put one of the babies in mortal danger?  Why, the haters ask, does poetry insist on being depressing?


Collins provides a good answer in an interview he gave to The Cortland Review.  In response to a comment that in a post 9/11 world, people were trying to live life more fully, he said:

Poetry has been saying that for a few thousand years. Seize the day. Do it now. The sense behind that imperative is that we don’t have an unlimited number of days. Television says the same thing all the time—’Everything’s going to be OK.’ Contemporary novels are saying, ‘Things are not OK.’ What poetry is saying is ‘Life is beautiful but you’re going to die.’ So much of poetry asks us to look at life from the perspective that death enhances life.


Which explains why after reading this poem I really wanted to hold a baby again, to kiss its little ears and feet; and why I remembered so sharply what it was like to be a young girl kissing a boy on the beach at night.  It all passes so quickly and then it’s gone forever.


The Chicago hotel I left “Baby Listening” in did not offer baby listening, but they did offer wake-up calls, a service Collins performs in every poem.

Billy Collins is considered the most popular poet in America.  His readings have been called “the literary equivalent of Beatlemania” and he once commanded a six figure advance for book, almost unheard of for a poet.  He served 2 years as the poet laureate of the United States, and has taught and published in the most desirable of places.  You can hear him read a few poems here, and read a previous Collins’ poem-elfing here.

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by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

My mother lived with this poem under her sink for two months before she found it. “I didn’t really understand it.” she said when she called. “Did you give me this poem for a reason?”

Did I?  I couldn’t remember.  Mostly because I couldn’t remember the poem.  “Hmm. . . Is it kind of about beauty?”

“I guess,” she said in her funny way that meant she didn’t think so at all.  “I think he says the horse’s ear is soft like a girl’s arm.”  My mother has a finely developed sense of the ridiculous.

Like a lot of people, she tells me she’s no good at poetry.  As if she failed at reading the poem.  As if reading poetry could be completed like Suduko or scored like a golf game.* But look here, she read the poem and she found an image that stayed with her. So the next time she sees a young girl’s wrist (which she will, having many, many granddaughters), she will think of the velvet of a horse’s ear.  She will wonder at the softness of it; maybe she will linger over her granddaughters sweet little wrist, feeling it with a secret appreciation. And should she come upon a horse (I’m straining to imagine under what circumstance, but one never knows, do one?), she’ll think of the delicate skin she was fortunate enough to have in her hands.

And that’s what I love about poetry.  Not that I usually understand every poem I read.  But at the very least I can take away an image—a beautiful or arresting or enlightening image–that I carry around with me like a picture in my wallet to pull out from time to time.

Back to her question.  Why did I give her this particular poem?  Er, uh, yeah, um. . . there was no reason.  So I’ll invent one now. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, my mother is a recent widow.  What I take from “The Blessing” is the idea that someone could cross over the barbed wire of dark times to connect with something so beautiful as to make him feel transcendent.  That would be my wish for my mother, the blessing I would give her.

I’m not an animal person.  Sentient beings whose consciousness is not framed by human language make me jittery.  Men who want to put their arms around slender horses make me jittery too.  There’s just a little too much nuzzling, caressing, and munching of tufts going on in this poem.  Equus, anyone?

Actually I don’t really think there are any zoophiliac issues here.  Rather I think the poem speaks of a longing for connection.  The poet finds that transcendent communion with the natural world, but I suppose one could find it anywhere.

The last line is beautiful enough to commit to memory:  “if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.”

*Billy Collins’ wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry” (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html ) is a great antidote to this kind of thinking.

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Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

by Billy Collins

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.


My apologies for the awkward dash between stanzas.  It’s the only way I can figure out to separate the stanzas in wordpress.

This poem of Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate (a post that seems much too stiff and ceremonial for a sweet-faced Irish fellow like him), ended up in my mother’s upstairs bathroom for the following reasons: a. she loves dogs; b. she likes little tricks; and c. I knew she’d like the silly humor of this poem. Which she did.  “Arf, arf,” she emailed me when she found it.

Plus, I think Collins, with his nimble imaginative leaps, might enjoy finding himself in that little-used room, with its patched plaster wall, untrustworthy toilet and world map shower curtain.  He seems to like going to unexpected places, at least in his imagination.

The barking dog in the poem suggests an image to me of the poet as he writes.  Collins is holding on, just barely, to a leashed dog, a curious and happy but untrained black lab.  The dog leads him where it wants to go, and Collins, no Cesar Milan, tries to keep up. He starts out for a walk around the block and ends up in a parallel universe bagging doggy turds on the corner of What-If and What-the-Heck-Just-Happened.

This is a poet with total faith in his imagination.  He follows its lead and we chase along, amused and wondering.  A barking pet keeps barking until four stanzas later Beethoven’s written a symphony for dogs.  Walking my own dog, I laughed out loud thinking about the dog sitting in the oboe section and the conductor “entreating him with his baton.” Here the original situation–the poem’s speaker wanting the dog to stop barking–is reversed.  The conductor wants the dog to keep on barking, louder and more expressively.  His efforts are successful.

Man vs. dog is usually a comic scenario (unless you’re trapped in a Stephen King novel), and the dog usually wins.  No exception here:  the dog takes over the orchestra, the symphony, and ultimately the poem itself.

Jane, ready for her solo

(Quirky timing footnote: the very weekend I hid “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” in my mother’s house, she showed me a gun she had just found hidden in my father’s dresser.  It was a black pistol, startling to find among the reading glasses and military pins of his junk drawer.  We have little experience with firearms, so it took us some time to figure out it was just a BB gun.  He must have bought it to scare off intruders who never bothered to intrude.)

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