Whoever chose Billy Collins as the country’s poet laureate (it was the Library of Congress) chose well. He is just the right poet for this time, this strange wartime.
Not because I can find any poem of his about war. On the contrary. They are about the most ordinary, peacetime things. Which is just what the country needs reminding of amid the flags and fear, the rousing speeches and lurking doubts.
We are an impatient people, a critical people, a restless people with a short attention span and a weakness for drama. We have built a complex, sophisticated, technologically advanced society that, we suddenly realize, is also fragile, vulnerable and targeted. And we lose perspective.
We lose sight of the simple things that are really not so simple home, family, a sense of humor and the unbreakable connection between the intimate and the universal. Billy Collins’ poems remind us of the important things that are in danger of being obscured by the dramatic and overwhelming, by the next headline and threat.
When war came to England in 1939, George Orwell wrote a pamphlet about what that war was about. He didn’t write about ideology or geopolitics or empire. He wrote about the things that made England England, and they were simple things. He wrote about “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.”
He wrote about the simple things that are intangible, too. Things you can’t see or taste but can feel. He wrote about the ideas, the habits, that make the English English. Like the rule of law. Like an eccentric preference for custom and tradition over logic and efficiency. He wrote about how a man’s home is his castle, and the English veneration of privacy, and their allergy to the power-worship that was sweeping Europe and the rest of the world at the time.
Billy Collins writes about home and family, the joys of domesticity, the companionship of music the simple things. But he writes about them at a step removed, on a second level, like someone standing back and looking at his own actions, his own life, his own country. And finding it comfortable, bemusing, then different and deeper.
Here is a poet who understands that the best poems are journeys, that they may begin in familiar surroundings but are judged by the surprising turns they take. And the poet is as surprised as the reader at those successful moments when he is no longer the author of the work but a character in it, just going along for the ride and taking notes.
Often enough the destination is surreal, like so much of America itself, and often enough hilarious, like America itself.
Consider his “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House,” with its title that is a poem itself. It begins with a barking dog next door and then ascends, descends and spirals into the gentle, surreal, inexplicable America of blue dogs.
It is the journey from irritation to whimsy everyone has taken when saved by laughter in the middle of a heated argument, and the effect is uproarious perspective. Just remember, as with the best poetry, to read it aloud to someone.
There is an innocence in Billy Collins’ poems that becomes power. As in America herself. So lovely and so strong a name at the same time, America. So childlike and so knowing at the same time, Billy Collins.
I think my favorite poem of his this week is “Osso Buco.” The poem begins after a supper of osso buco and risotto washed down with a cold, exhilarating wine. (“I love the sound of the bone against the plate. the lion of contentment has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest.”) And it ends at the center of existence.
Anger and grief are easy enough, natural enough, in the aftershock of a sneak attack. It is patience and perspective that are in short supply. And humor. We already have a surplus of bloviation, of adolescent wit and political animus. See any television screen near you. To hear Billy Collins’ words in your own mind is to be reminded that gentleness can be the strongest and most stirring and lasting of qualities, even the basis of faith.
Reading him, I think of visiting the American Embassy in Moscow at the end of a three-week tour of what was then the Soviet Union. We had been assaulted by indoctrination and ideology at every stop and from every billboard between Leningrad and Irkutsk. And then, on that last night, we set foot on formally American territory in the capital of all that falsity. The embassy was decorated with simple American folk art. In the hall was a sign from an old New England inn, and all it said was:
“Live and let live.”
And I knew I was home. No grandiose proclamations of class war. No cries of ideological certitude. No strained dialectic and theory of history. Just an extended hand, a willingness to live and let live, to laugh and let laugh.
It is a different time now, but this enemy, too, wouldn’t understand anything so simple as tolerance. It is life itself that offends him, the very presence of others in the world. He has divided the world into true believers and infidels in which bloody havoc is some kind of holy war and there is no room for disagreement. He doesn’t recognize the holiness of ordinary, undisturbed things. He refuses to recognize it. It would be the end of him. What would he have to hate?
I don’t think he would like Billy Collins’ poetry. I don’t believe he would see the point of it. Or understand the strength of it.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.