A poem’s journey

I spent an inordinate amount of time today at work enjoying an extensive interview with Billy Collins in the Barnes & Noble e-newsletter, in which he talks about his poems and the world of Poetry with a capital “P.” In particular, I was intrigued by his style of beginning a poem with a familiar, concrete first stanza and finding a way, at the end, to a newly created space. The interviewer provides an example in the excerpt below after which Collins describes one poem’s journey that starts as a simple memory, landing us eventually in an imagined world, a deft movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown.

Interviewer: The poem in the new book that I’m thinking of right now is “What Love Does,” which starts out with a familiar entry point, love songs on the car radio: 

A fine thing, or so it sounds
on the radio in the summer
with all the windows rolled down. 

Collins: So we’re all with that, we’re all together in the same car. Right.

Interviewer: Then, with a little twist that’s poignant in the exact sense, we come to: 

Yet it pierces not only the heart, 
but the eyeball and the scrotum 
and the little target of the nipple with arrows. 

And you proceed through a small catalogue of love’s effects, in which each of the three-line stanzas might be the kernel of a John Donne poem exploring love as arrows, or love as wrestling, love as a flower-hopping bee, and so on. All of this imagery is recognizable and easily embraced. But at the conclusion of the poem, you set us down in a strange land indeed, with an unexpected evocation of the puzzling ominousness of love, setting off on a journey to a forbidding city: 

It will travel through the night to get there,
and it will arrive like an archangel
through an iron gate no one ever seemed to notice before.

You’ve led us from a summer joyride, listening to the Beach Boys or Frank Sinatra or the Supremes, and then deposited us at the gates of a bewildering city both promising and fearsome.

Collins: The poem wants to move from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place, in this case, an imagined city. The theme is the way love passes quickly from one person to another, like a bee going from flower to flower. Even as the ink is drying on the new beloved’s name, love is off to visit someone in another city. It’s one thing to leave it at that. But the temptation is then to imagine this city, to actually particularize it. Where is this city? What city? Well, it’s a city of the imagination, obviously. But then, it’s particularized. It has chimney pots, and a school with a tree-lined entrance. So suddenly, the convertible we were driving in is forgotten, and we’ve moved into the reality of this city, which is a kind of unreality, but it’s particularized as if it were real. Then you have this metaphor of the archangel arriving at this city, in the spectral way of archangels, through a gate that somehow no one in the city ever noticed before — and that would be the entrance to the heart, now that I think of it. To commit an awful act of paraphrase on the poem: you don’t realize you’re susceptible to love because you’ve never noticed the possibility of that door being opened. And yet it appears to you in the guise of an archangel.

Nicely put. Even if Collins feels paraphrasing his own poem is a sin, the idea that love is not only a door to be opened, but a door that you never even noticed is an intriguing idea in itself. I love how the poem evokes memories of listening to the car radio, but even more, I would like to visit this city of chimney pots and tree-lined streets. In poems, you can experience both on a single page.


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