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...]