I haven’t been reading at my usual pace lately, because the bookconscious household is less than three weeks away from moving from southwest Georgia to New Hampshire. In the chaos of packing and attending to the myriad of details involved in transferring our lives back to the land of four glorious seasons, I’ve tried to keep up with magazines, but haven’t had time to lose myself in a book. But I did have a birthday in September, and naturally, I received some new books. One of them is just the right size and mood for a person who barely has time to sit down: She Was Just Seventeen, by Billy Collins.
If you aren’t familiar with Collins, he is a former poet laureate and one of the most popular poets in America. I’d say he’s my favorite living poet. If you haven’t heard him read his work (he appears every so often on A Prairie Home Companion and other public radio programs), you can listen to recordings of his readings (I was the lucky recipient of one of those as well). His readings are delightful — he is a poet of the people in the best American tradition, writing about everyday life, music, nature, relationships, and the world around us. And his humble, self-effacing style creates a palpable rappor with the audience that comes across even on a recording.
Some critics say his poems aren’t cerebral enough, but a close reading refutes that theory — Collins likes to poke fun at the stuffy side of literary academia, but his work is plenty smart. Check out this interview with Powells.com for more on Collins style and substance.
I frequently re-read favorite poems, and many Collins works are on that list. Young readers respond well to his work, too — readers of poembound, my blog about leading poetry workshops for teens, will recognize some of his poems among my favorites: “Introduction to Poetry,” “I Go Back to the House for a Book,” “Japan,” “The Trouble With Poetry,” “Marginalia,” and “Looking West,” are a few.
Honestly, I’ve never read a Billy Collins poem I haven’t admired on some level. My family loves them too; we take turns putting a poem on the fridge each week and a Collins poem never fails to earn at least a “cool” from kids and adults alike. One reason I enjoy his work so much is that as I read, I suspect Mr. Collins admires some of the same things I do — good food, the natural world, jazz, and the literature of the East, particularly haiku.
Over the past few years, I’ve published many poems in small literary magazines, and my work appears most often in a handful of journals dedicated to English language haiku and related forms. One of the best such journals, Modern Haiku, prints poems in alphabetical order by author, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was the first time I saw my own poem on the same page as work by Billy Collins. Haiku has become more mainstream in recent times, but despite the fact that several prominent poets embraced the form in the 20th century, haiku is generally on the fringe of the American literary scene — and here was one of the most admired contemporary poets, published beside ME.
That’s how I confirmed my secret belief that Billy Collins and I have something in common. Unfortunately, I don’t have the publishing clout of Mr. Collins, so my first haiku collection is as yet unpublished. But Lee Gurga, the former editor of Modern Haiku, and a respected voice in the haiku universe, explains in the afterword of She Was Just Seventeen that he read the aforementioned Collins poem, “Japan,” and felt inspired to write a letter to Collins, asking if he wrote haiku and whether he’d like to submit some to MH.
I’m grateful he did. She Was Just Seventeen is a wonderful little book, beautifully produced — it’s printed on thick, textured paper, stitched rather than bound, with a snazzy cover. Collins writes both traditional haiku (that of the seventeen syllables, like you learned to write in grade school) and contemporary haiku (if you’re not sure what that means, see the Haiku Society of America’s definition). One or two seemed to stretch the genre beyond it’s parameters, but a few are new favorites:
Crossing the river
on the new stone bridge —
the geese below look the same.
Awake in the dark —
so that is how rain sounds
on a magnolia.
Black hearse rushes by–
blue chickory on the roadside
swaying in its wake.
Heavy rain all night —
with closed eyes I see
the orchard, the dripping leaves.
Most contemporary English haiku does not use capitalization or punctuation, but I noticed that Collins adherence to a regular style gave the book continuity. Most importantly, as the four poems above illustrate, Collins captures the “haiku moment” in his poems.
Great haiku is both momentary and timeless, a specific experience captured but also freed for readers in any time or place to experience again, and again. Like all good haiku poets, Collins describes ordinary experiences in his poems, subtly noting the connection that binds humans and the natural world. Each poem is both a snapshot and a viewfinder, a picture and an invitation to see.
This conscious seeing, being in the moment of an experience, is in line with not only my own writing practice, but also my continued quest for mindfulness. It’s also the topic of another book I am reading, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. More on that next time in bookconscious.