Thinking Makes It So: A lesson on how to write poetry

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By Kelly LeVan

A woman with long silver hair – silver like unicorns, not bracelets – jumped to feet, shouting and clapping her hands above her head. She might have been crazy, I really don’t know. She was enthusiastic. The rest of us remained seated. But while she jumped and screamed compliments toward the podium, we clapped.

A lot.

Like you would after a great bit of stand-up comedy.

Like you would after a particularly rousing line at a political rally.

This was unlike any other poetry reading I’ve ever attended.

Some 200-300 of us crowded into the placita at St. John’s College Friday night to hear former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins read his work. It was a balmy, breezy evening, and the mountains behind us seemed to brighten as the sky darkened. Collins stood in front of the college library, the enormous white pillars framing him as he said he’d begin with poems about the behavior of poets.

A self-depreciating giggle hummed through the audience.

After a poem describing poets sitting at windows – and their earlier, pre-window predecessors starting at walls in search of inspiration – he read “Ballistics,” which imagines the victim in a piece of high-speed photography he saw, one where a bullet pierces some nameless volume, an “executed book,” as Collins calls it. It might be a work by one of his less-beloved contempories, he speculates, as he recounts the speed at which the metal tears through the poems – with so little resistance – and through the author’s photo.

Collins then told us about encountering a rule in a book titled, “How to Write Fiction.”

“Never use the word ‘suddenly’ just to create tension,” the rule goes. As a student of way too many writing classes, I can tell you this is practically a biblical truth as far as people who teach fiction workshops are concerned.

Anyhow, Collins doesn’t write fiction. He ended up writing a poem called “Tension,” which reads, in part, “We found ourselves / standing suddenly in the kitchen /where you suddenly opened a can of cat food /and I just as suddenly watched you doing that … Who could tell what the next moment would hold? … Would the stove continue to hold its position?”

I have never laughed so hard during a poem.

But why not? It seems like, at most readings I’ve attended, the poets aren’t even trying to make us laugh. In fact, it seems as though they don’t want us to have a good time at all. Ever again.

Listening to Collins read, I realized there’s a word missing from all the “How to Write Poetry” guides: Entertain.

And a short paragraph: If you play deep, your average reader will see through you like a dry, old contact lens: with total displeasure. Even if you are legitimately profound, who cares? Most of us, most of time, don’t want to hear about it.

Furthermore, I, at least, don’t want to hear any more tragic family histories. That’s not how I want to spend my Friday night.

“‘Read Silence’!!” the silver-locked woman squealed.

Collins smiled. “Am I some sort of poetry jukebox?”

He read the poem. It warranted the squeal. He went on to “January in Paris.”

There’s a famous quote by Paul Valery about how a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Again, as a student of many sad, critical afternoons telling my classmates why their poems didn’t work – none of our poems ever “worked” – I am very familiar with the quote and the idea. How do you end a poem? Eventually, you just give up on it. It’s not like a sandwich, where you can tell right away when you’re finished. It’s more like swimming in the ocean – you know you’re done because you’re cold or tired or bored.

Anyhow, in “January in Paris,” Collins meets one of Valery’s abandoned poems in a bar. She’s beautiful, and he takes her home to – there’s some romance here – finish her.

He then read a few short poems, about a dog, divorce, the Gutenberg Bible and the sheepskins required to bind it, and the spirituality of teenage girls who say “Oh my God” everywhere, even at the mall.

There were a few just goofy poems – “Blueberries,” “Hippos on Holiday” and the adorable “Bathtub Families.” You might include “This Little Piggy Went to Market” in this batch as well.

Then, he read “Litany,” which ranks up these with my favorite poems by William Carlos Williams as possibly perfect – really as lovely as something created by a human can be.

“Read ‘Shoveling Snow With Buddha’!!”

“That better not be the same person yelling,” Collins said, hesitating to look toward the woman with the long hair the color of shiny Nambé bowls and vases.

She lowered her head reverently he read us the poem. As soon as the poem ended, she shrieked, wild for free verse, desperate, overwrought, absolutely rocking out.

Stealing from “When Harry Met Sally,” Collins deadpanned, “I’ll have what she’s having.”