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Mike Pride: Billy Collins’s poems are written – and read – quickly

Billy Collins, who will read in Concord tomorrow night, sat with George Plimpton for a Paris Review interview around the time he was named U.S. poet laureate in 2011. When Plimpton asked about his writing habits, Collins said:

“I write the poem in one sitting. Just let it rip. It’s usually over in 20 to 40 minutes. I’ll go back and tinker with a word or two, change a line for some metrical reason weeks later, but I try to get the whole thing just done. Most of these poems have a kind of rhetorical momentum. If the whole thing doesn’t come out at once, it doesn’t come out at all. I just pitch it.”

Reading a Billy Collins poem is similarly quick because it tells its story so clearly. I start reading every poem of his with anticipation. I read the title or the first line, and I ask, “Where’s he going to take this thing?” I never have the vaguest idea, but I know it will be strange, and somewhere along the poem’s way, I will probably laugh.

Take “The Art of Drowning,” the title poem of Collins’s 1991 collection. Consider that title. It’s funny, absurd, like a René Magritte painting. Drowning is artless, tragic, not funny.

And then come the opening lines: “I wonder how it all got started, this business / of seeing your life flash before your eyes / while you drown . . .” We have all heard this notion of life flashing before the eyes, but isn’t just a fiction to divert us from the choking, desperate horror of drowning?

In Collins’s hands, the notion becomes not a comfort but a source of one surprising spark of dark humor after another, all flowing with the
“rhetorical momentum” so vital to Collins’s gift.

Here is the poem:


I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.

After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn’t you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs –
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography –
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.

Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,

a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.

(Tomorrow night at 7 at the City Auditorium in Concord, Billy Collins will receive the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. Collins will also read his poems. Donald Hall plans to attend. After Collins’s readings, the two poets will sign books. The Concord Monitor and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project are the sponsors of the event. Tickets are $10.)

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