Today was the second half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry.” (I wrote about the first half here.)
The bulk of the session was devoted to the kinds of “turns” a poem can take—that is, the developmental moments in a poem which turn our attention. In the first session, he had already talked about the importance of having these turning moments to propel a poem to its ending. He listed these as the types of turns a poet can employ:
- Logical or rhetorical turns: For example, in “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvel employs a three-part logical syllogism (major premise, minor premise, conclusion) and the turns are signaled by the words “but” and “therefore.”
- Turns in time or space: For example, in “Tintern Abbey” the poet falls into a reverie and remembers, and then when he comes back, the landscape is coloured and informed by his memories. Time and space are provisional in a poem, and we can take advantage of that.
- Turn from the abstract to the personal: For example, in “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” Eberhart tackles these really broad themes of morality and then in the final stanza turns to two specific soldiers he knew who had died, and it’s the personal details at the end which give the poem its power. Also, e.g. Vijay Seshadri’s “The Long Meadow” and Billy Collins’ “The Death of the Hat.”
- Reflexive poems which turn in on themselves: These poems develop a disproportionate interest in some aspect of themselves, eg. Billy Collins’ “Canada” with its obsession with Cherry Ames, or eg. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break,” in which the second stanza (all about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) is addressing the simile in the first line (“Like freak Texan sisters joined at the hip”), moving away from the first stanza’s discussion of his failed relationship to go inside the simile (as though, Collins said, walking into a hologram). In these poems, the tenor and vehicle often get switched, such as in Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (“a genius at destabilizing”).
- A turn to the present, so that the poem includes its own composition.
- A turn to the reader: For example, in “Dulce et Decorum Est” at “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace.”
Then we had a question and answer period. I didn’t take thorough notes on everything he was asked. He talked about sentimentality (which he doesn’t like) and irony (which he does); the poetic line as a unit of sense or a unit of rhythm but having to be a unit of something; the role of rhyme in modern poetry (“What happened was the rhymes invaded the body of the poem…”); and, how you know when you’ve finished the poem (his answer was very vague but I don’t know how anybody could answer that definitively).
I really liked one of his answers, to the question of how you decide what order to put the poems in a book manuscript. He said that he didn’t write with a book theme in mind (“All my poems are thematic in that they’re about me. Me and death.”) so he comes up with connections afterwards. He likes to lay his poems all out on the floor of the largest room in the house (“face up!”) and walk around them barefooted, looking for pairings and connections until he has enough groups of them together to make a book. However, and this was the part I really liked, he said you can also order a book by front-loading all the really excellent poems—putting the best stuff first to get the editor’s attention—and then when they accept it, say, “You know, I’ve had some second thoughts about the order…” Hilarious.
His recommended reading:
- Andrew Marvel “To His Coy Mistress“
- William Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey“
- Richard Eberhart “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment“
- Vijay Seshadri “The Long Meadow” (subscribers to The New Yorker can purportedly read it here, and the rest of us can read it in the Collins’ essay “The Vehicle of Language,” also linked at the end of this post)
- Billy Collins “The Death of the Hat“
- Billy Collins “Canada“
- Michael Donaghy’s “The Break” (sorry, I couldn’t find this online)
- Yannis Ritsos “A Myopic Child” and “Miniature“
- Wilfred Owen “Dulce et Decorum Est“
- Billy Collins “January in Paris” (he reads it here)
- Richard Jones “Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed“
- Charles Bukowski “8 Count“
For more on all of this, try this essay: “The Vehicle of Language,” which must have been written by Billy Collins. Oddly, Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t specify the author but lists Collins as a tag, but the essay is in the first peom and talks about a “poem of mine” called “Theme,” which is a poem of Collins’, so I’m satisfied he’s the author (but made slightly paranoid by the lack of byline, as though you all might catch me in an error and be all “obviously it’s an essay by this other poet, So-And-So, who also wrote an identical poem called ‘Theme’ good Lord, Joanne, how can you be so dim” or something).