Monday, November 10, 2014

eBook Review – Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins

picnic-lightningCollins was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, and still is one of America’s most loved and successful contemporary poets both in monetary and critical terms. 

I am, as I have stated before, attracted to formalist poetry, to fairly distinct and repetitive rhyme and rhythm.  My enjoyment of Collins then, came as a bit of a surprise. 

Picnic, Lightning is a collection of everyday musings in poetic form and from what I can ascertain, this is standard for Collins’ kind of poetry.  Indeed his poem In the Room of a Thousand Miles presents us with a manifesto.  Though perhaps that’s too strong a word:

In the Room of a Thousand Miles

I like writing about where I am,

where I happen to be sitting,

the humidity or the clouds,

the scene outside the window—

a pink tree in bloom,

a neighbor walking his small, nervous dog.

And if I am drinking

a cup of tea at the time

or a small glass of whiskey,

I will find a line to put it on.

 

My wife hands these poems back to me

with a sigh.

She thinks I ought to be opening up

my aperture to let in

the wild rhododendrons of Ireland,

the sun-blanched stadiums of Rome,

that waterclock in Bruges—

the world beyond my inkwell.

…[read on]

This focus on the everyday, the mundane, the “suburban” as Collins himself calls it, has led some to view his work as a bit bland.  For sure, you won’t find rage here or angst.  You might find humour, wit and playfulness though and perhaps that puts people off that think poetry should be about important things (as If laughter and lightness aren’t important) or about “plumbing the depths of one’s soul”.  Collins is far more contemplative.

Personally I get the same sort of feeling reading Collins that I might reading Japanese forms like Haiku and Tanka, in that they are often very particular observations of the ordinary and yet more than that as well.  The diction and syntax is fairly straight forward, enhancing his general appeal and accessibility. The poems tend to seep in under your defences and a poem that first is about returning to the house for a book, walks you gently into a meditation on alternate possibilities/realities. 

Readers of speculative fiction might not view the following as all that strange but if you are fairly linear in your thinking, then this poem opens up possibilities:

 

I Go Back to the House for a Book

 

I turn around on the gravel

and go back to the house for a book,

something to read at the doctor's office,

and while I am inside, running the finger

of inquisition along a shelf,

 

another me that did not bother

to go back to the house for a book

heads out on his own,

rolls down the driveway,

and swings left toward town,

 

a ghost in his ghost car,

another knot in the string of time,

a good three minutes ahead of me—

a spacing that will now continue

for the rest of my life.

I enjoyed Picnic, Lightning for its relatively easy “entrance exam”, almost any lover of good written words could pick Picnic, Lightning up and enjoy it.  Many of the poems could have been formatted as prose, as flash fiction, but there is something to be be gained by the arrangement of line breaks, in drawing you eye and pacing your reading.  Collins draws your attention to the ordinary and most of the time finds for us the extraordinary. It’s his consistency in delivering this to the reader, I suspect, that grants him success. 

Death and pain are big themes in poetry but sometimes we need to be reminded of the extraordinariness of life.


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