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Thread: Reading Billy Collins in the Bath

  1. #1
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    May 2011

    Reading Billy Collins in the Bath

    Reading Billy Collins in the Bath

    I am reading you in the bath
    and you are doing that thing again,
    making me want to laugh then strangle you,
    not just because the little factual paragraph
    on the typeface in your perfect book
    is better than most poems I write,
    nor because, thanks to a CD I bought,
    I hear your lugubrious voice sounding
    every syllable like a soft and distant bell,
    but mostly because after a few pages,
    the mundane in the bathroom, and in all
    the rooms in this old house, begins to resonate
    like some small but perfect oriental poem.
    For instance, my wife just came in
    and as she spoke about lunch
    a sudden lick of sunshine fell across
    her face like a dazzling Arab veil.
    I am wishing for a squadron of tanks
    to knock the village down, or an aircraft
    to fall from the sky like a bird arrowed
    at the breast, so I can say
    ‘Stick that in your pipe Billy Collins’,
    but I suppose even from such an event,
    tender gold would be spun like thread
    at the end of day, birds would sing a tattoo,
    and those still alive beyond
    the immediate wreckage area of these
    imaginary catastrophes would look up
    at their stars, and quietly go to sleep.

  2. #2
    Registered User Caliode's Avatar
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    May 2012
    The two rules of criticism, which I always apply to any literary work are in the form of questions:

    1. Does it communicate?

    2. Does it have value?,

    The second is generally more problematical.

    There are three sentences in this poem. The first one is over-elaborated (as though that were the nature of poetry). From a straightforward beginning it loses its way and in fact the end of the sentence appears to have no connection with the beginning. This is a shame because the idea at the end of this sentence is an interesting one. It is this idea which connects with the second sentence, which is much shorter. Unfortunately the paradoxical image of the dazzling veil does distract - mainly because of Collins's poem about 9/11. I appreciate that the writer is trying to describe the transformative nature of poetry, but somehow that idea becomes muddled. I presume 9/11 or something similar was rumbling around the writer's mind, which prompted the initial violence of the third sentence before its relaxation into peaceful acceptance.

    My conclusion would have to be that the poem contains much that is of interest and is in parts well written. However the communication is poor and what it is trying to say somehow fails to have an importance.

    Tattoo is used I assume in the military sense of a signal at evening calling soldiers to their rest, which goes quite well with the warlike tone in the earlier part of the third sentence - so there is some cohesion of thought.
    Last edited by Caliode; 01-15-2013 at 10:08 AM.

  3. #3
    feathers firefangled's Avatar
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    Jun 2007
    Florida near Tampa Bay
    Hallaig, this is excellent. You have captured his voice very well. His actual voice always reminds me of the actor Kevin Spacey. I enjoyed your choices for communicating the exaggeration and amplification typical in a Collins poem (e.g. Another Reason Why I don't Keep a Gun in the House).

    Once I've read a book of his poems, I find it hard to shake his (literary) voice. It sticks like a catchy tune in my head. Do you find that yourself?

    Brilliant poem. Well done!

  4. #4
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    I like the way you explore poetry's ability to communicate so much to the reader beyond simple words. I can't say that the inclusion of the reference to the CD added much to the image of comfortable domesticity contrasting perhaps with the poem being read at the time. But other than that I think this works well as a rather subtle investigation into how art can impinge on the mundane.

    I can't see 'the possessive' use of the name Collins in this poem (you only mention his name twice) so I'm not sure there's a problem.


  5. #5
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    May 2011
    Hill- There isn't a possessive, but then again the original complaint has been removed by the ubiquitous one. The CD's essential cos its that that stuck his voice in my heid! free of it now, I think. Funny, accessible writer. Love him.

    Firefangled- Aye that's often the case, worse this time because of the CD: I couldn't get the actual resonance and timbre out of my head.
    Last edited by hallaig; 01-15-2013 at 10:29 AM.

  6. #6
    Employee of the Month blank|verse's Avatar
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    May 2009
    Even though this is about Billy Collins, I presume it takes its title from Sean O'Brien's 'Reading Stevens in the Bath'.

    For me, the first half (up to 'oriental poem') is more successful, as it dwells on the same quotidian particulars that Collins transforms in his poetry so effortlessly.

    I see what you're trying to do thereafter, be inspired in the same way to transform the domestic scene around you, but the poem strains too much to achieve this; it comes across as too heavy-handed – the 'Arab veil' and the tanks and so on too heavily-loaded with contemporary significance, and the poem loses that lightness of touch that Collins achieves, even when talking about serious matters.

    Collins's poetry can be fantastical, but is always careful to take the reader with him. And I doubt he'd use a mixed metaphor like the 'lick of sunshine' that fell 'like a veil'.

    However, there are some enjoyable moments, like this simile:

    lugubrious voice sounding
    every syllable like a soft and distant bell,

    One of the ways Collins controls his writing is by employing regular stanzas, so maybe that's something you could consider including; that said, there is control to the lines, many following a similar 'one phrase per line' pattern that Collins uses, which is well-achieved.

    So I think it's a decent effort, and I think you made a rod for your own back by including a direct reference to another famous poet. But if it's any consolation, I think the same criticism can be levelled at O'Brien's Wallace Stevens poem as well…!

  7. #7
    All are at the crossroads qimissung's Avatar
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    May 2008
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    You have indeed captured Collins' voice so very well, so soft, so musing as it draws us into something ordinary and then turns it into something less than ordinary. Very well done. Bravo!
    "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its' own reason for existing." ~ Albert Einstein
    "Remember, no matter where you go, there you are." Buckaroo Bonzai
    "Some people say I done alright for a girl." Melanie Safka

  8. #8
    Registered User tallonrk1's Avatar
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    Dec 2012
    I'm going to agree with blank verse when he/she says the tanks and aircrafts is a little heavy as imagery. I thought the Arab veil was nice though.

    Beyond this, I loved it! And I love Billy Collins
    "I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." ~Maya Angelou

  9. #9
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    Thanks folks for all your advice. It's a poem I published already in qarrtsiluni, don't know if you know the online mag, but I changed the end so was curious if it still worked. I find this place helpful, ta very much.
    Last edited by hallaig; 01-21-2013 at 08:26 AM.

  10. #10
    Registered User tailor STATELY's Avatar
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    Ta ! (short for tarradiddle),
    tailor STATELY

    who am I but a stitch in time
    what if I were to bare my soul
    would you see me origami


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