(in honor of National Poetry Month)
Earlier this week, I pulled off the road into a parking lot to do an Internet search on my iPhone. Neal Conan broadcasts his phone number time and again, but I can’t manage to commit it to memory long enough to dial. So I was searching for the number to call the NPR program, Talk of the Nation. I was unsuccessful in quickly finding the number, so I pulled out my notebook and a pen and waited for Neal to announce the call-in number again. While I waited I formulated my thoughts. I wanted to talk to his guest, Billy Collins.
This didn’t happen, because instead of repeating the call-in number (800-989-8255), Neal wrapped up the segment with Billy. It was over. I love Billy Collins. So do several of my girlfriends. We think he’s a rock star. Seriously. He makes my heart jump (as it did when I heard him on the radio) nearly as much as Bruce Springsteen does. But Billy’s not a rock star. He’s a poet—a former poet laureate of the nation, in fact. I attribute my renewed love of poetry to him and he’s had similar impact on my friends.
Several years ago, one of my girlfriends suggested that we all attend a literary event at which Billy would be speaking and reading his poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, but sure, why not try something different? My love affair with poetry spanned several phases of my life, beginning my senior year in high school when my poetry teacher let us analyze our favorite song for a class presentation (mine was “Ladies of the Canyon” by Joni Mitchell). In college, Sylvia Path and Robert Frost were my go-to poets. But in later years, my relationship with poetry was only casual.
Oh, we were thrilled with the poetry event at the synagogue; on the edge of our seats, hanging on every word as Billy enraptured us. We were by turns in the throes of laughter and then touched to the point of tears by his verse. So unpretentious, like everyman; we wanted to grab him and escape for cocktails after the reading. We didn’t. But it spurred another thought.
Instead of sitting around someone’s house just swilling wine on a Friday night, we thought, why not do something more productive with our time? That is how “Martinis and Poetry” began. While the cocktail menu may have changed (and thus the name of our group), we continued to have several Poetry Society get-togethers. Each of us would bring a poem or two to read aloud. While this was a new genre to some of us, we plunged in fully. Reciting, listening, laughing so hard, quietly wiping away tears, and requesting repeat performances because the visions in our minds’ eyes were so lucid we wanted them appear again. I treasure our experience in sharing—such unexpected insights into each other.
Billy Collins wasn’t the only poet on our playlist, of course. Garrison Keillor’s compilations pointed us to unfamiliar names. We became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s view of the natural world and bought tickets to her appearance when she came to town. As our Poetry Society grew in number, the more poetically inclined of us opened the doors wider, introducing additional voices.
His critics say that Billy is too accessible (read commercial). I guess that means he’s not esoteric enough. Imagine! A poet who wants to bring his readers along instead of leaving them scratching their heads and giving up in frustration.
Not to rush the divine plan, but I’ve selected one of Billy’s poems to be read at my memorial service. Here’s the first part of “The Dead”:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
At our Poetry Society get-togethers my friends and I experienced how the genre invites us to slow down, be challenged, contemplate the small, stir our imaginations, and discover what touches us.
I appreciate Billy for all the joy he spawned at the reading we attended years ago. I pulled into the parking lot wanting so much to let him know.
My soundtrack today: Neal interviews Billy