The first of three Billy Collins books in my library, Nine Horses was published in 2002. Born in 1941, Collins was Poet Laureate of the US from 2001 to 2003. He was called “the most popular poet in America” by The New York Times, due to his brilliant yet accessible observations of life.
The very first poem in this collection is a letter to the reader, a being with with whom the poet is desperate to communicate: “There is something else I wanted to tell you…but now I am wondering if you are even listening…and why I bother to tell you these things/that will never make a difference/flecks of ash, tiny chips of ice.”
These lines blow me away. He sets them up with images of the speaker not being able to sleep and going out into the early silent morning. Who can’t relate to this, especially after a dozen years or more of marriage, when a voiced thought or feeling has to work to break through a partner’s screen time; when everyone is so busy that to catch up you scroll through Instagram rather than interrupt them with a call.
The ash and ice are such perfect images. It doesn’t matter (or does it?) if they are never voiced, they are small and ephemeral. By writing them down the poet preserves these precious observations for himself and anyone else that cares to read them. Does this make you feel hopeful or hopeless? Since I just watched the poetic and tragic movie Days of Heaven (Terrence Mallick) and have the thematic music Le carnivale des animaux “Aquarium” (Camille Saint Saens, 1886) running through my head, I am tending toward the hopelessness of true communion with others. Then again, this is the Selfish (and therefore often lonely) Book Club and maybe it’s just me.
But Collins proves me wrong in my hopelessness with his popularity. He can and does commune well with others. Take the poem, “More Than a Woman.” His images for a song include a tape on two spools in his brain, “a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,” “a mad fan belt.” So much fun for a “puffball” of a tune stuck in the head. The spheres in the “music of the spheres” become the balls on a pool table, lofty things become tawdry.
There are a few poems in the collection that don’t charm me (I’m sure they appeal to other Collins’ fans) such as “Paris.” The Collins poems I love are those that deal with the tiniest, humblest fragments of life, like finding a dead mouse “still dressed in his light brown suit” rather than his life as a guest in Paris thinking about zinc-covered bars.
As with most poetry books I read, my inner dialogue goes like this:
“Oooo, good one.”
“Meh, so what?”*
“Meh, so what?”
“Meh, so what?”
“Oooo, good one!”
I hesitate to criticize poetry, because I write it (of course I do) and know how difficult it is. As Prufrock complains, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Poets gather and share shards of the life experience, “fragments shored against …ruin,” so that spoiled, over-saturated and over-entertained readers can “Oooo, yes!” or “Meh, so what?” It takes guts to share your shored fragments: the audience is distracted, restless, uncaring, expectant, hopeful, hopeless.
*The great thing about “Meh” poems is that they give all of us permission to put down our own observations and be fine with the fact that not all our poems, and maybe none of them, are going to be genius. Of course, even Collins’s “mehs” are worth reading to the end and are enjoyable.