The art of Billy Collins

Billy Collins, who turned 72 yesterday (March 22), was once called the most popular poet in America by the New York Times. I love some of his poems that speak to me like a friend, telling stories in intimate, picturesque detail; I listen, completely spellbound, unable to interrupt, and the words linger in my mind long after the conversation is over.

He describes books, beaches, houses, the last cigarette he had, incidents from childhood, memory slipping away, in a quiet, intimate voice that makes a deep impression on you. He can be witty, but you are drawn to him because he sounds so personal, so intimate, as he mixes memories with ruminations – and, always, there is the beauty of his word pictures, so vivid, so memorable.

That’s the only way I can describe his poems, by the effect they have on me; I can’t dissect them, analyze them, evaluate them like a literary critic. Nor, do I think, does he want me to. A professor of English, this is how he described that particular attempt at understanding poetry in this poem: [Read more...]

On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems

This must be one of the shortest, heavily anthologized poems in the English language. On Julia's Clothes, by Robert Herrick, runs to only six lines. But, witty and playful, this 17th century poem is one of the 100 most anthologized poems in the English language, according to the Columbia Granger's World of Poetry. Here are links to the top 100. But first…

On Julia's Clothes
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

[Read more...]

Two poems about Singapore

One poem leads to another. Reading Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai, and co-edited by Enoch Ng, Isa Kamari, and Seetha Lakshmi at the public library, I wanted to read more poems about Singapore.

And, as luck would have it, I came across another anthology, this one co-edited by Alvin Pang, whose poem, Merlign, I particularly liked among all the poems about the Merlion. This anthology is called Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, edited by Alvin Pang and John Kinsella. I immediately liked two of the poems: Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River by Miriam Wei Wei Lo and They Say by Kirpal Singh.

I couldn’t borrow either of the books, so I photocopied these poems. And since I couldn’t find these poems on the internet, here they are, so I can read them again.

Why are poems so hard to find on the Net? There should be a few by every poet so we may want to read more of their works.

Here’s more about Kirpal Singh and Miriam Wei Wei Lo (here and here).

[Read more...]

Unacknowledged legislators of the world

Percy-bysshe-shelley_sep3_2 Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley's words came to my mind while I was reading a report about Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, an excellent speaker and leader but not inclined to poetry.

He was talking about leaders. Political leaders cannot be trained but must be found and be people with passion, he said at the Lee Kuan Yew Institute of Public Policy. Yes, it is named after him. A National University of Singapore graduate school where former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan will begin teaching next year.

What has that to do with poetry, one may ask.

Well, poets, too, can't be trained and must have passion.

So says James Fenton, a poet himself, in his book, An Introduction To English Poetry.

Poets can't be trained like musicians, he says. Poetry has "no equivalent to the practising of scales or other finger exercises".

And yet there is music in poetry. One can hear the sound of the waves in Tennyson's famous lines:

"Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, o sea!"

The sensuousness is palpable in Keats' Bright Star:

"Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon in death."

Words can be music and more in a poet's hands. Fenton explains how the poets achieve the effects they do in his short, excellent primer on the rhythms of poetry.

Shelley also compares poetry with music and other art forms in A Defence Of Poetry – and finds it superior to them all. He concludes:

[Read more...]

The enduring appeal of Roger McGough

Roger McGough, who stands a chance of being voted Britain's favourite poet, has another claim to fame. He was a  member of the band, The Scaffold, that topped the BBC Top 20 chart with the hit single, Lily The Pink, in 1968. The trio also included Paul McCartney's brother, Mike McGear (real name Mike McCartney), and John Gorman.

McGough is the curly-haired, bespectacled one who sings solo the the verse beginning "Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles" at the end of the first minute in this video.

McGough, with fellow Liverpool poets Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, also wrote the biggest-selling collection of postwar English poems. Their Penguin anthology, The Mersey Sound, has sold more copies than any other postwar poetry collection, says the Guardian. First published in 1967, it has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. I loved it at first sight and have written about it before (here and here).

Now McGough is one of the 30 poets BBC website visitors can vote for in the poll to choose Britain's favourite poet. The shortlist prepared by a panel of judges includes:

The current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Milton, John Donne, William Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Kipling, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and the late poet laureates John Betjeman and Ted Hughes. (Visit the BBC Poetry Season site to read some of their poems.)

But not on the shortlist is the previous poet laureate Andrew Motion.

That's only poetic justice, McGough might say.

He can't forget the former poet laureate did not include him in The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry, published in 1982.

McGough told the Guardian:

When Motion and Morrison edited the Penguin Book of British Poetry, we were totally omitted…Those years when Motion was editor of Poetry Review, and Craig Raine was poetry editor at Faber … I felt we were always in the position of having to defend ourselves. We got cheesed off at being referred to as small-town Mantovanis, or the pop brigade. I suppose because we didn't do English at university, or because the poetry I was writing could be appreciated by my mother or my aunties. It came out of a sort of naivety.

By "we", he meant the Liverpool poets: Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and himself.

[Read more...]

A New York minute with Billy Collins


The Singapore River isn't the Hudson
But it has a homely charm of its own,
The Botanic Gardens no Central Park
But a tranquil, sylvan landmark
Well worth a visit or two.
Life in Singapore is nothing to rue
Unless you make much ado
About the Straits Times
Being no New York Times.
Then you're in the wrong time zone.

Yes, there's a 12-hour difference between Singapore time and Eastern Standard Time. Midnight in Singapore is midday in New York.

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But you don't have to be in New York to appreciate the poems of Billy Collins. Though this one is called Eastern Standard Time, and specifically addressed to people in his time zone, you appreciate the humour and homely details even if, like me, you are on Singapore time.

 Eastern Standard Time
By Billy Collins

Poetry speaks to all people, it is said,
but here I would like to address
only those in my own time zone,
this proper slice of longitude
that runs from pole to snowy pole,
down the globe from Montreal to Bogota

Oh, fellow inhabitants of this singular band,
sitting up in your many beds this morning —
the sun falling through the windows
and casting a shadow on the sundial —
consider those in other timezones who cannot hear these words,

They are not slipping into a bathrobe as we are,
or following the smell of coffee in a timely fashion.

Rather, they are at work already,
leaning on copy machines,
hammering nails into a house-frame.

They are not swallowing a vitamin like us,
rather they are smoking a cigarette under a half-moon,
even jumping around on a dance floor,
or just now sliding under the covers,
pulling down the little chains on their bed lamps.

[Read more...]

Any Prince To Any Princess by Adrian Henri

I have loved Adrian Henri ever since I read him in my schooldays in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the Penguin Modern Poets’ Mersey Sound. The slim red paperback with photo negatives of mop-headed young men on the cover, which included poems by him and two other Liverpool poets Brian Patten and Roger McGough, has sold half a million copies and remains one of the best-selling poetry collections of all time, said the Guardian in Adrian Henri’s obituary. He died in 2000 at the age of 68.

I dearly miss my Mersey Sound. Somehow I lost my copy and have never seen the book again. Even those who normally don’t read poetry but like pop music should read Mersey Sound if they can find the book. The poems are catchy and easy to understand just like pop music but experiment with verse and typography.

Adrian Henri was a free spirit in the tradition of Byron and Shelley, the Guardian said in his obituary and recalled a funny story:

He told me how, after a gig, he had gone back to a girl's room in some desolate seaside town and lost his wallet. Forced to leave before breakfast in the morning, he walked by the grey waves and, hearing a seagull, looked up — and a piece of bread dropped into his open mouth.

The following poem is typical Adrian Henri, clever, accessible and humorous. Anyone young at heart will enjoy Adrian Henri’s updating of fairy tales and turning them upside down. It’s like those Monty Python movies though not quite so funny.

It can’t be hilarious but wry because this is a poem about hard times.

I first read it in the anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. He presented them on his radio show, The Writer’s Almanac.

 Any Prince To Any Princess
By Adrian Henri

August is coming
and the goose, I'm afraid,
is getting fat.
There have been
no golden eggs for some months now.
Straw has fallen well below market price
despite my frantic spinning
and the sedge is,
as you rightly point out,

I can't imagine how the pea
got under your mattress. I apologize
humbly. The chambermaid has, of course,
been sacked. As has the frog footman.
I understand that, during my recent fact-finding tour of the
      Golden River,
despite your nightly unavailing efforts,
he remained obstinately

[Read more...]

David Mamet on poetry, music and free speech

“Someone said that TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alred Prufrock is not unlike a rap song. They miss the point. It is a rap song. It’s just not a very good one,” says playwright and film director David Mamet, quoting from TS Eliot’s poem:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

Mamet says: “Our great American poets are not Longfellow and Robert Frost, our great American poets are Hank Williams and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), not our literati but our songwriters.”

Music and poetry lovers will enjoy listening to David Mamet giving the Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture at Santa Monica on the BBC World Service. Longtime BBC listeners will remember the late Alistair Cooke, who broadcast his famous Letters from America on the BBC.

Fittingly, Mamet talks about language and culture, exploring poetry and American popular music.

And he ends by defending freedom of expression.

This is not just a speech but an essay which can be compared with Orwell’s writings on language and politics and culture.

Unfortunately, the BBC does not provide a transcript of the speech. But please click on the link and listen to the audio.

“Language, it seems to me, always has only two uses,” says Mamet, “poetry, which is an attempt to understand, and obfuscation.”

“A play is only a long, carefully structured poem,” he adds.

The magnificence of the American language like that of the Hebrew and the Bible is that it is punchy and to the point, he says.

“The chain gang chants, the jailhouse roasts, the slave songs and the blues… make up the majority of what is known around the world as the American idiom.”

“The great American writers have not been intellectuals,”  he says, “the people who shaped the language were the songwriters… They write because they got the blues.”

[Read more...]

Anthem for Doomed Youth

The First World War is ancient history now. After all, it ended 90 years ago. November 11 marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. Remarkably there are still some old soldiers from that long-ago war. Three centenarians representing the British army, navy and air force attended the ceremony in London, reported the BBC.

Remarkable too is some of the poetry written during the war. Poetry written by soldiers – the war poets. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Julian Grenfell… The Times Archive Blog tells the sad story of how Grenfell and his younger brother both died in the war. Brooke died on the way to Gallipoli. Owen and Rosenberg both died in the final year of the war.

Owen’s nightmarish Strange Meeting is perhaps the most powerful poem about the First World War, conveying the violence and the futility. Brooke’s The Soldier is anthologised for its idyllic evocation of England. But another war poem that I have never been able to forget is Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. It’s shorter than Strange Meeting and elegiac in tone.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns;
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

And here’s The Soldier by Rupert Brooke.

[Read more...]

Hillary: Poetry and prose


Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

That was Shelley. And it’s certainly true of Hillary Clinton. Adversity has melted the ice queen. Newspapers headlined how she choked back tears when a woman asked her how she gets through her gruelling campaign. "It’s not easy," she said. "And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately believe…"

"At this point she stopped, too choked up to continue, as the audience applauded," reported NewsDay.

It was a revealing moment, of the passion, conviction and intensity that hide behind that cool exterior.

Oh, there’s no question about her ambition, nor is there about Obama, Edwards and every man jack running for the White House. Devoted homeloving guys don’t swap family time to press the flesh of voters and schmooze with pols. Yet Obama walks on water while Hillary gets the flak. Now trailing behind Obama in the opinion polls, defeat staring her again in the eye, this time in New Hampshire, she has finally spoken movingly. 

"You campaign in poetry," she said. "You govern in prose." 

Oh where was this Hillary, I wondered when I read the quote, moved by her eloquence. There speaks a woman who grew up to the music of the Sixties and danced to  Fleetwood Mac at her husband’s inaugural. Those were the days!

She had been prosing away about universal health care and specific plans and programmes when the voters were in the mood for poetry about how one man could unite the nation, never mind how.

But she has never claimed the poetic gift. Those memorable words of hers were not hers really, as she took the trouble to point out. "A wonderful former governor of New York used to say ‘You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose,’ " she said, quoting Mario Cuomo. "We need a president who knows how to govern." She was claiming she would make a better president because she had more experience, but it was so beautifully put. Even if she was quoting someone else, one must appreciate she came up with such a gem.