Do words such as iambic pentameter, metrical foot, or sestina trigger high-school anxiety followed by a self-defense fueled urge to flee?
Do you groan and do your eyes automatically glaze over at the mere mention names such as Keats, Donne or Chaucer?
If so, check out the New Title Tuesday recommendation The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins without delay. Not only can it revive even the most jaded and bored victim of high-minded poetry instruction, it’s a great way to kick off National Poetry Month in April.
It also happens to be a moving collection of verse from the former U.S. Poet Laureate.
Summary: His twelfth collection of poetry sheds Collins’s ironic light on such subjects as travel and art, cats and dogs, loneliness and love, beauty and death. His tones range from the whimsical—“the dogs of Minneapolis . . . / have no idea they’re in Minneapolis”—to the elegiac in a reaction to the death of Seamus Heaney. A student of the everyday, here Collins contemplates a weather vane, a still life painting, the calendar, and a child lost at a beach. His imaginative fabrications have Shakespeare flying comfortably in first class and Keith Richards supporting the globe on his head.
Maybe you are one who – like my husband – avoids poetry in all of its forms. But, with Collins’s work you will be surprised, amused, and elevated.
An example of Collins’s appeal to the ‘everyman’ can be seen in a recent encounter I had with my husband.
“Honey,” I approached cautiously, “I think you would enjoy reading this book of poetry.”
Speaking more quickly but ever so sweetly – as one does when broaching a sore subject with a spouse – I continued. “I challenge you to read just one poem from this new collection.”
Then I swirled on my heel and left for work before this poetry challenge could become a ‘thing’ that metastasizes into a simmering multilayered disagreement.
At the core of this request, my husband, as are so many Americans, is a long-suffering victim of high school poetry instruction that suggested popular poetry couldn’t possibly be good poetry. So naturally his default setting is fear and loathing of all things verse.
But, to my surprise, when I returned from work, he announced that in fact he had read a poem – the first one in the book. Here is a segment:
In the old joke,
the marriage counselor
tells the couple who never talks anymore
to go to a jazz club because at a jazz club
everyone talks during the bass solo.
But of course, no one starts talking
just because of a bass solo
or any other solo for that matter.
Collins’s verse points out that the quieter solo merely reveals that people have been talking all along. Then he describes his own repeated listening to a live album by Bill Evans, a brilliant jazz composer and pianist. The recording includes the voice of a man who “chats up his date” during the performance. The poem continues:
I have listened to that album
so many times I can anticipate the moment
of his drunken laugh
as if it were a strange note in the tune.
And so anonymous man,
you have become part of my listening,
your romance a romance lost in the past
and a reminder somehow
that each member of that trio has died since then
and maybe so have you and, sadly, maybe she.
Now, back to my husband’s response to “1960.” I wasn’t surprised that he was drawn to the subject matter (jazz). And though he’s not ready to convert, without prompting he mentioned other ideas that Collins presented.
This and other poems in The Rain in Portugal address anonymity, death, and beauty.
“1960” is just one example of Collins’s approach to creating. As he stated about another poem in the collection during an interview with Diane Rehm on NPR, “…often a poem starts where two things that have a lane very separate and parts of your mind somehow get synaptically connected.”
Collins also explained that it’s nearly impossible to judge all poetry by one standard in the same way athletes and sports have many different purposes and performance goals. He said in the same interview, that he tries to keep his language simple and free from “decoration” and “sound effects.” He told Rehm he labors “to sound spontaneous. I mean, it takes work to sound convincingly spontaneous. So most of my poems are written in one sitting, kind of that’s the run of the poem from beginning, middle to end, and when I do go back, it’s not so much revision as refining it, refining the sound and the cadence of it.”
This effort also leads Collins to resist rhyming; hence, the title of this collection, a play on the poem “The Rain in Spain.”
Last year, reviewer John Cusatis wrote in the Post and Courier: “Collins, who was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters this year, has spent much of his life tuning out ‘the window cries’ of authority figures aiming to prohibit his fun. He grew up in the rigid conservatism of 1950s America. During 16 years of what he calls “the full metal jacket of Catholic education,” (he did not have any classes with girls between 8th grade and graduate school), his exposure to poetry was limited to traditional poets whose voices sounded distant and old.”
The Rain in Portugal is a refreshing and engaging collection of poems with diverse topics and settings – and a great start to National Poetry Month.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Collins:
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his first volume of new and selected poems in twelve years. Aimless Love combines fifty new poems with generous selections from his four most recent books—Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Collins’s unmistakable voice, which brings together plain speech with imaginative surprise, is clearly heard on every page, reminding us how he has managed to enrich the tapestry of contemporary poetry and greatly expand its audience. His work is featured in top literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic, and he sells out reading venues all across the country.
Billy Collins Live [sound recording (CD)] : a performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space April 20, 2005 Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, shares 24 of his poems and also spends some time in question and answer session where he reflects on what makes good poetry, his own process of reaching his audience as a poet, the success of his Poetry 180 programs in schools nationwide, and an amusing sidebar on his memories of growing up as an only child.
The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins.With his distinct voice and accessible language, America’s two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed.
Like the present book’s title, Collins’s poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony.