Saturday

Mar. 22, 2008

Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

by Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

"Fishing On The Susquehanna In July" by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of two famous musical composers, Stephen Sondheim born in New York City (1930) and Andrew Lloyd Webber born in London (1948). Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story (1957) and the music and lyrics to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). Lloyd Webber wrote the music for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ, Superstar (1971), Evita (1978), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), Sunset Boulevard (1993), and Cats (1981).

Both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber were interested in music at an early age. Sondheim grew up next door to the Oscar Hammerstein II family, and Lloyd Webber's father was the director of the London College of Music. Each has developed his own style of musical — Sondheim is famous for his complex lyrics and dark plots, while Lloyd Webber's name is synonymous with huge, operatic scores and experimentation with style and time signature. Each has won multiple Tony Awards for Best Musical Score — Sondheim in 1971, 1972, and 1973, and Lloyd Webber in 1980, 1982, and 1988. Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera was made into a movie in 2004, and a movie version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was released last year.

Today is the birthday of poet Billy Collins, (books by this author) born in New York in 1941. Collins is both a critically acclaimed and popular poet, a unique combination in the world of modern poetry. Collins began writing poems at age 12. He devoured all the poetry he read, especially the contemporary poems in Poetry magazine. In an interview, Collins explained, "I remember reading a poem by Thom Gunn about Elvis Presley, and that was a real mindblower because I didn't know you could write poems about Elvis Presley. I thought there was poetry — what you read in class — and then when you left class there was Elvis. I didn't see them together until I read that poem."

Collins began selling his poems to Rolling Stone for $35 a pop in the 1970s. He married Diane Olbright in 1977 and published his first book of poems, Pokerface, that year, but it wasn't until the publication of Questions About Angels in 1991 that he began drawing critical attention. His other major poetry collections are The Apple that Astonished Paris (1988), The Art of Drowning (1995), Picnic, Lightning (1998), Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), Nine Horses: Poems (2002), and The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005). Collins' style is light, humorous, and fond of extended metaphor. He uses mundane situations as diving boards into the larger philosophical questions of life. His poem "Forgetfulness" starts this way:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Collins said, "Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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