“There’s something very authentic about humor, when you think about it. Anybody can pretend to be serious. But you can’t pretend to be funny.” ~ Billy Collins
Today we’re serving up a three-course poetic meal in celebration of Billy Collins’s 76th birthday on March 22.
Heidi Mordhorst, who’s hosting Poetry Friday today, is encouraging everyone to share their favorite Collins poems (or Collins-inspired originals).
Naturally I am partial to Billy’s food-related verse. Since he’s written so many good ones it’s impossible to pick a favorite. I love the wit and tenderness of “Litany” (you will always be the bread and the knife,/not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow — the wine), and the wisdom and beauty of “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant” (and I should mention the light/that falls through the big windows this time of day/italicizing everything it touches).
Come to think of it, Billy always seems to be eating in restaurants. Maybe that’s where he does his best thinking. My kind of poet. 🙂
He once said he would rather have his poetry be described as “hospitable” rather than “accessible” (which brings to mind “on-ramps for the poetically handicapped”).
Like it or not, he is undeniably both, a large part of why he remains America’s favorite poet. Doesn’t just seeing his name make you feel good?
Ever hospitable, he welcomes us into each poem with an easy conversational tone and generous spirit, engaging us with humor that lends a deeper poignancy to serious subjects. Enjoy today’s smorgasbord of witty, silly, self-deprecating, contemplative, satirical, ironic, genuine words of gratitude and contentment as only Billy can serve them up. I’m so glad he’s in the world.
One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.
Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.
Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude’s older than Cheerios
the way they used to say
Why that’s as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,
I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.
~ from Poetry (September 2012)
As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.
I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.
And I feel sorry for you, too —
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh —
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.
And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow
even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine.
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief’s favorite son.
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rock hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.
But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaak Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.
In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other one will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.
How many poets can tap into the marrow of human existence with such aplomb? Who else is so casually profound? And I love the second stanza in “Osso Buco” where he pokes fun at *ahem* serious poetry. I admit I don’t usually commune with my fish while I’m eating it — I’d rather my food not look at me anyway. Rest assured, it’s good to know I’m younger than Cheerios.
Finally, just because it’s Billy’s birthday, here’s a little digestif from Billy’s latest book, The Rain in Portugal (Random House, 2016). My little English major self is highly amused. 😀
NOTE TO J. ALFRED PRUFROCK
I just dared to eat
a really big peach
as ripe as it could be
and I have on
a pair of plaid shorts
and a blue tee shirt with a hole in it
and little rivers of juice
are now running down my chin and wrist
and dripping onto the pool deck.
What is your problem, man?
🌺 THINGS TO DO GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🌺
We are pleased to announce that the winner of a brand new copy of Elaine Magliaro’s new poetry picture book is
drum roll, please
Please send your snail mail address to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com so we can get the book out to you pronto!
Thanks, Everyone, for all the nice comments. It truly is a beautiful book, hope you get to see it soon!!
The lovely and talented Heidi Mordhorst is hosting the Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe. Check out the full menu of Billy Collins goodness and have a great weekend!!
Shall we let our favorite only-a-tad-older-than-Cheerios poet have the last word?
🎈HAPPY 76TH BIRTHDAY, BILLY COLLINS! 🎉
Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.