Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Happy Poems

Recently I read a presentation on the poetry of Billy Collins, using a Francis Fukuyama article to set up the definition of what it means to be bourgeois, and then showing how Collins fulfills this definition. While writing the presentation I was reading some of Bill's work, which caught the eye of many of my young friends. I witnessed something that I had heard about for a long time -the natural appeal of Collins' work to the general reader. I had heard the "older" generation of professors outside the poetry world praise Collins, but here was the example first hand. My friends, many of them just barely in their twenties, gravitated to Collins like flies to a dung... it was amazing. My hat's off to you Mr. Collins.

Now I would like to present a little workshop exercise. This will kind of be like a Bob Ross presentation of poetry -we're going to make a happy little poem...

"Writing a Billy Collins poem": A Poetry Exercise

Buy and read and re-read Nine Horses (2003) or any other collection by Billy Collins. These poems are your role models.
You are going to write a poem with many of the features of a Billy Collins poem.
Begin by reading all the poems in at least one of his books. As you read jot down three or four characteristics that you admire and that appear in several of the poems.
Below we give you a list of some features that we picked out.
Then we'll show you how to start and how to continue.
Here are some of the features of a Billy Collins poem. For your first exercise, plan to use every one of these in your first draft. You can cut the less successful features when you revise.
Billy Collins' line breaks are not avant-garde, but simply reflect the normal punctuation and pauses for breath. Many of the poems are written in couplets, triplets, or quatrains. They do not have end rhymes. So, when you start writing your poem, you can use similar "natural" breaks between your lines, and you can group the lines into stanzas of between 2 and 4 lines.
You will need a small animal. It could be a mouse or a snail. It could be a small, caged bird or a goldfish. Pick one. The animal will usually stand for you. Or you might stand for it.
Collins' poems are primarily about his own daily, non-confessional experiences. He appears in his own poems as a friendly and unpretentious "I".
Collins likes to address "you". Remarkably, even to readers who usually detest such poems, Collins does not offend. That is because he is flatters and teases the addressed "you". Be prepared to walk the dangerous "you" path!
Think of a slightly squeamish element that you can include, such as a dead mouse or a still-living bird brought in by a cat.
Include an extended metaphor that flourishes for stanzas, rejoicing into the surreal.
Include a conscious (in fact, self-conscious) descent into bathos (in the sense of anticlimax).
Refer to one or more famous people (such as Ken Kesey or David Hume) or a town (such as Omaha or Kathamandu) or a state or country (such as Florida or China).
Use commonplace language, such as:
"how fatuous, how off base of Whistler" (p.101)
Here we go. Time to start using the features in your work.
Line 1: Begin with a line that mentions a time. Most commonly, Collins picks a time earlier in the morning (page numbers are from
Nine Horses ):
"Every since I woke up today" (p.14)
"This morning as I walked along the lakeshore" (p.17)
"Long into the night my pencil" (p.86)
"In a rush this weekday morning" (p.101)
Line 2: Continue with a line containing a verb - an action of what you (or something) did:
"a song has been playing uncontrollably" (p.14)
"I fell in love with a wren" (p.17)
"hurried across the page" (p.86)
"I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery" (p.101)
Line 3: So far, it's not too weird, too surreal, too Collins-esque. Don't get cute too soon. Take a little time first to lull the reader. So here, simply add another line of description, introducing (or extending) a metaphor or simile that represents what occurred. You are continuing the story.
Lines 4-6. This is when you begin your career as Billy Collins. Bring in your small animal (bird, fish, whatever). Introduce your slightly squeamish element.
Lines 7-9. Reference "you" in a charming yet clear-eyed way.
Extend your metaphor relentlessly for several more stanzas.
Conclude with a flourish that shifts the mood to one that complements the prevalent mood so far.
Revise. Revise. Revise.