Mar. 22, 2011


by Billy Collins

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.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

"Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins. Used with permission of the poet. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "My poetry is suburban, it's domestic, it's middle class, and it's sort of unashamedly that, but I hope there's enough imaginative play in there that it's not simply poems about barbecuing." That's the poet Billy Collins, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). He was an only child. Before he even knew how to read he would page through books and pretend that he was reading whenever his parents had company. He said, "I would say it was a fairly happy childhood. But they say he who says that is just better at repressing things." He wrote his first poem at the age of seven when he was driving with his parents and looked out the river and saw a sailboat on the East River.

He hasn't stopped writing poems since then. He said: "I was a most impressionable teenager back in the days of Beatnik glory, so I responded fully to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti's 'Coney Island of the Mind' — still a good title — Gregory Corso and others. I was in Paris for a summer in the early sixties and hung self-consciously around the corners of the scene on the Boul Mich, as they called it. I sat at the same table with Corso and others, and I even hung around with an American girl named Ann Campbell, whom Realities magazine had called 'The Queen of the Beatniks.' (Let's see … what did that make me??) But mostly I was a Catholic high school boy in the suburbs who fantasized about stealing a car and driving non-stop to Denver. I probably would have done it, but I didn't have access to those special driving pills Neal Cassady had. Plus, there was always a test to study for, or band practice."

In graduate school, he was convinced that writing confusing poems was a sign of greatness. He said, "I wrote very difficult poetry and I was really guilty of not knowing what I was talking about." Then he read the poem "Elvis Presley" by Thom Gunn, which begins: "Two minutes long it pitches through some bar: / Unreeling from a corner box, the sigh / Of this one, in his gangling finery / And crawling sideburns, wielding a guitar." Collins said, "I thought there was poetry–what you read in class, you read 'Hiawatha' in class–and then when you left class there was Elvis. I didn't see them together until I read that poem." So he started writing poetry that was more direct, more readable. He said, "I think clarity is the real risk in poetry because you are exposed. You're out in the open field. You're actually saying things that are comprehensible, and it's easy to criticize something you can understand."

He continued to write poems even after he became a professor. His first published poems were just a few lines long, and they were published in Rolling Stone. He said: "They were mostly kind of pothead poems. […] I wrote very short poems in those days. I thought writing poetry was like blowing out birthday candles — you had to do it in one breath." He published a couple of books that didn't get much attention. He sent his next manuscript to the poet and editor Miller Williams, who wrote back and told him that 17 of the 45 poems were great, and if he got rid of the rest and wrote new poems as good as those 17, Williams would publish the book. Collins took his advice, and in 1988 he published The Apple That Astonished Paris. He gained a following throughout the next decade, and by 1999 The New York Times called him "the most popular poet in America," pointing out that three of his four books were in the top 16 best-sellers on Amazon.com, competing with Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and songwriters like Jewel and Jim Morrison.

His books include The Art of Drowning (1995), Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), Nine Horses (2002), and Ballistics (2008). His latest collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, comes out next month.

Billy Collins said: "As I'm writing, I'm always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast, or too glibly. 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.''

And, "I have no work habits whatsoever. I don't write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don't sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch."

And, "I don't think people read poetry because they're interested in the poet. I think they're read poetry because they're interested in themselves."

It's the birthday of the best-selling novelist in the world, James Patterson, (books by this author) born in Newburgh, New York (1947). By the time he started publishing novels, he already had an impressive career in advertising — he was an executive for J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. But he decided to retire and devote himself to writing, and he is devoted. He has published more than 70 novels, and according to recent data, he outsells Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham combined. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most hardcover fiction books on the New York Times Bestseller list (63 books), and since 2006, one out of every 17 hardcover fiction books sold in the United States is written by Patterson.

He developed his trademark fast-paced style almost by accident. He was working on one of his first novels, The Midnight Club (1988), and he wrote a barebones template for the plot, which he intended to revise and flesh out. But he decided he liked it that way, so he kept it as the final version and used it as a model for other novels. He said, "If you think of the story that you tell that's your favorite personal story, or funny story, it doesn't have flashy sentences. It doesn't have too much detail. It just tells the story. That isn't, for whatever reason, the way most people write books. But it seemed to me that there was no reason that it couldn't be the way at least one person writes books. I said: 'I'm going to stop writing the parts that people skim.'"

It's the birthday of composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim, born in New York City (1930).  He was an only child with very wealthy parents — they lived on Central Park in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He said, "I did not have an unhappy time, because it literally did not occur to me that other people had a family life. I saw my parents occasionally at night and on weekends, and I thought every child in New York lived that way." His parents divorced when he was 10, and he had a miserable couple of years — his mother enlisted people to follow him when she wasn't around and make sure he never saw his father.

When Sondheim was 12 years old, he made a friend named Jamie Hammerstein. Jamie's father was the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and the Hammerstein family ended up virtually adopting the boy. He idolized Oscar Hammerstein, who was turning out blockbuster shows with his musical partner, Richard Rodgers. Sondheim decided that he too would write musicals when he grew up. When he was a teenager, he showed Oscar a musical he had written, and Oscar said that it was the worst thing he had ever read but that he could tell the boy had talent. So he mentored the aspiring composer, and when Sondheim was 25 years old, he got a big break — the offer to write the lyrics for the musical West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein. He went on to write lyrics for some shows, music for others, and finally both music and lyrics. His musicals include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Into the Woods (1987).

He said, "I prefer neurotic people. I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of translator Edith Grossman, born in Philadelphia (1936). Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but Grossman became obsessed with the Spanish language. She said, "My high school Spanish teacher just reached me. I said whatever this woman is doing I want to do."

Grossman won a Fulbright grant in 1963 to study Spanish poetry, and then took a job as a professor of Spanish literature in New York City. One day, an editor of a literary journal asked her to translate a short story from Spanish to English. She wasn't sure if she would like the job, but she found that it was a lot of fun, and at 50 cents a line, it was a nice way to earn some extra money while working from home. She translated some novels, and in the mid-1980s, she set out to translate Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera. She knew that one of Márquez's favorite English authors was William Faulkner, so she decided to use Faulkner's style as a guide for her translation. She said: "I didn't use any contractions in the narration, and I used Latinate words, polysyllabic words, instead of German monosyllables. Any time I could, I chose a longer word rather than a shorter word, as if Hemingway had never lived." When Grossman's translation of Love in the Time of Cholera came out, it was such a success that Grossman was able to quit teaching and begin translating full time. She has since translated all of the books that Márquez has published since 1990, and he calls her "my voice in English."

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




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