Friday, 17 May 2019

Monday, by Billy Collins

Let's talk about Billy Collins poem Monday. When Billy Collins talks about poetry he says that poets should not start with some great psychic moment. Because the reader isn't yet committed to the poem or the poet's or what the poet has to say.

According to Billy Collins, the poet's task is to build if not a relationship at least some confidence with the reader. To do that you start simple. you don't ask the reader for a big investment at the beginning. Note how simple the first stanza of this poem is.
The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.
Well, that's easy enough.
They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth-
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.
The second stanza is almost as easy. It develops the idea that poets are the same everywhere and their first job is to observe.

There's a bit of poetic language in the second stanza. We have the tangerine of Earth and the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.

But even with that, the stanza isn't difficult.
The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.
The third stanza further develops the idea but inserts a lot of homey details. A cigarette, a cup of tea, a flannel shirt a bathrobe. Part of the idea is to invite us to think of poets, not as ivory tower academics but common folks.
The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong
game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.
Same idea in the fourth stanza. Note how the poet is multiplying images. some people do this some people do that but poets observe. They look out their windows.

Also, note the humor in the last two lines of the fourth stand it is their job for which they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon. Once again the whole idea is to present poets as common straightforward folks.

So we continue this train of thought down to the eighth stanza.
By now, it should go without saying
that what the oven is to the baker
and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,
so the window is to the poet.
Now we've subtly injected an idea. The window is a tool an essential item for the poet to exist. Just like a baker couldn't exist without an oven and a dry cleaner couldn't exist without clothes that needed to be cleaned. So the poet cannot exist without close observation.

It's not a difficult idea but it's just a little bit more complex than what we've encountered so far in the poem.

Now here's another thing that Billy Collins says. He says that at some point in a poem "the sauce begins to thicken".

The ideas and images that we've been encountering began to take on more depth of insight and complexity. Now that idea is helpful to me in reading poems. When I'm reading a poem I look for the moment when the sauce begins to thicken. When ideas begin to take on added dimensions and at this point in the poem that starts to happen.

First, we have another mildly comic image. Just think if there weren't any windows poets would have to put on their hats and coats go outside how inconvenient. Or they would just have to stare at a wall. but here's where the sauce really begins to thicken.

The poem at the end considers how a poet sees. The emphasis in the first several stanzas is just making the points that poets look at things.

They observe but at the end, we take a step deeper into deeper water and consider how they observe how they see things. If a poet were to look at a wall for example with striped wallpaper and the drawing of a cow and a frame. The true poet would see more than just that. The true poet would see the wall as both a literal thing and as a metaphorical thing. What might the wall suggest or represent or evoke?

An image from a medieval sonnet, a heart of stone, a lump in the throat so hard that it feels like a stone. All of the sudden were beyond bathrobes and barber chairs and fisherman bobbing in boats.

Now we're thinking about something a little more cerebral. But the point of the poem is not difficult. It is this:-

Poets observe but in the act of observing they see beyond the surface to the suggestions and implications that lie beneath the surface.

You know one of the great questions of life and literature is this.

To what degree does what we see represent reality and to what degree is a reality beyond what we can see.


Most great writers think that the essence of reality is beyond what we can see. So they try to probe beyond the surface and that's what this poem is ultimately about.

I might add in that respect that writers and scientists are in agreement I sometimes like to hear physicists talk. They lose me pretty quickly when they start talking about relativity and string theory and parallel universes. But there's one point they all make that I can understand. There's a lot happening beyond what we can see and great writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens would agree with that.

Thanks for reading Monday by Billy Collins.