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Damaso Honors English II, Period 2 7 May 2010 Billy Collins - Visual Wizard “Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes / They call me on and on across the universe / Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box / They tumble blindly as they make their way / Across the universe” From “Across the Universe” by the Beatles Many forms of creative expression have an important focus on detail. Human beings enjoy the stimulation of the brain and senses, often with a multitude of images, thoughts, and feelings. This is something that creative detail can deliver. For example, forms of artwork and literature such as paintings, sculptures, music, poetry, et al. use vivid detail in the composition to give a colorful (sometimes literally!) mental experience to the viewer. Many painters and other visual artists often utilize color, shading, and depth, to create detailed pieces of art containing the most visual information that can be fit into the painting. Songs use mood, texture, and different instruments in conjunction with the lyrics to convey images and feelings relating to the song, and poetry uses figurative language and description to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
Cabano 2 An example of a poet whose work paints a picture like this is American poet Billy Collins. According to his biography on Poets.org, Billy Collins began releasing his poetry in the 1970s, although his most praised and popular works were published in the 1990s (par. 1). He was chosen as the Poet Laureate for the United States in 2001 (par. 3) and also is in charge of a poetry program for schools called Poetry 180 (par. 5). This essay will focus primarily on three of Collins’s works: “The Afterlife” (Appendix A), “Marginalia” (Appendix B), and “Thesaurus” (Appendix C). In his poetry, Billy Collins uses detail and figurative language to paint vivid pictures of his poetry in the reader’s mind. Collins is lucky in that he has gotten to enjoy his fame without becoming “too famous,” that is, he doesn’t have paparazzi following him or constant, annoying media attention. He has lived a fairly ordinary life punctuated with the success of his poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, Collins was born in 1941 in New York, New York (par. 2). He received a BA from College of the Holy Cross and then went on to achieve both an MA and a PhD from the University of California-Riverside (par. 2). In 2001 he was selected Poet Laureate of the United States, and he served until 2003 (par. 1). Since 1971, Collins has been a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Additionally he is Sarah Lawrence College’s writer-inresidence (par. 6). He currently resides in Somers, New York (“Billy Collins,” Poets.org, par. 5). Collins writes in a style that is rather laid-back and easy to read, appealing to the average person as well as to avid poetry readers and fans
Cabano 3 (“Billy Collins,” The Poetry Foundation, par. 1). A typical Billy Collins poem is written in a style very close to that of ordinary prose writing. Rhyme is nearly nonexistent in his works, and meter is never consistent, and sometimes is not even present at all. In an interview with Grace Cavalieri, producer and host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem,” Billy Collins explains that he writes his poems directly to one single person, not to a general audience (par. 73). A single, unknown person is in mind. Says Collins: The poems I write are basically for one person. I don't know who the person is, but I have an idea of speaking or whispering these poems to one listener, and I hope I'm aiming for a very intimate connection. (par. 73) His poems’ subjects are generally ordinary, everyday items and situations in the ordinary life. Sometimes this is extremely literal. For example, one of Collins’s poems is entitled “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of 'Three Blind Mice.’” (“The Afterlife” 48). Talk about obvious! No hidden meaning or analogy here! Right off the bat that poem tells the reader what it’s about. Billy Collins describes his childhood as happy (“A Brisk Walk,” par. 2), and perhaps this contributed to the fact that his poems are loose, carefree, and rarely negative. The happy childhood could have influenced his life in making him a person who is not pessimistic, and this is reflected in his poems. Being born as early as he was and still being alive today, Billy Collins has lived through a myriad of important times and events in our nation and world.
Cabano 4 For example, Collins has been around every war since World War II (he was born just months before the United States entered WWII in 1941). Any sort of important national conflict, sporting event, artistic release, ANYTHING that has occurred since that time has been experienced by Billy Collins. He was there for it all. Let’s take, for example, the time right after World War II had ended in 1945. For the past 15 years our nation had experienced economic depression that was only fixed due to the total war of World War II that ensued nearly immediately after its conclusion. When the war was finally over, the economy began to boom. This can be partially attributed to the “Baby Boom.” The population growth caused by more births stimulated the economy because demand for food, clothing, toys, and other child-related items shot up, causing consumers to pour money into the economy (“Baby Boom,” par. 3). People were happy again and the country was thriving. These good times after World War II overlap directly with Billy Collins’s childhood – indeed, he did describe it as happy, which connects as mentioned above – and likely has an effect on his adult life and therefore his poetry. An event in more recent history that has had some effect on Billy Collins is the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Collins lives in New York and was affected by the tragedy that occurred that day. In an interview with Lauren Secor of Mother Jones, Collins said that he turned to poets and poetry after September 11th (“Billy Collins: Mischievous Laureate,” par. 10). He said that, of the specific poets he turned to:
Cabano 5 “One thing these poets have in common is that they have lived through times when there has been rubble in the streets and soldiers tramping through one's garden. That hasn't happened in America.” This catastrophic event had a direct effect on Billy Collin’s poetry. As the U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins wrote a poem entitled “The Names” in 2002 in remembrance of lives lost in the attacks (“U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins Reads 9/11 Poem to Congress,” par. 2). He read the poem to the Congress of the United States on September 6th, 2002 (par. 1) Billy Collins uses detail and figurative language to paint vivid pictures of his poems in the reader’s mind. His happy childhood is quite possibly a factor in the laid-back, ordinary subject matter. Collins effectively uses this type of subject as a canvas for him to paint these mental pictures upon. Here is analysis of “The Afterlife,” “Marginalia,” and “Thesaurus.” Each of these poems exemplifies the earlier-mentioned usage of figurative language and detail to create strong mental images in the reader’s mind. “The Afterlife” is about everyone going to the afterlife of their fantasies after death. “Marginalia” and “Thesaurus” deal with words: margin notes and words in a thesaurus, respectively. Individuals from poetry organizations, magazines, programs, etc. are common amongst Billy Collins’s literary critics. “The Afterlife” uses simile, metaphor, and vivid, picturesque imagery to convey the images of the poem. A few examples: Some are being shot up a funnel of flashing colors / Into a zone of light, white as January sun/...Some are being shot up a funnel of
Cabano 6 flashing colors /Into a zone of light, white as January sun. (“The Afterlife, lines 10-11, 19-20) Whatever the afterlife contains is something no one has ever seen, which forces Collins to create the images himself to visualize the unknown. Another example of Billy Collins giving imagery and descriptions to unconventional things can be found in his poem “Marginalia.” In “Marginalia,” Billy Collins uses metaphor and personification to bring life to something as mundane as notes in the margins of books. Many of the connections are quite unusual and interesting. These excerpts give some examples of this: Sometimes the notes are ferocious, / skirmishes against the author... / my thumb as a bookmark... / Students are more modest /needing to leave only their splayed footprints / along the shore of the page. (“Marginalia,” lines 1-2, 13, 17-18) The lines about “splayed footprints” are especially interesting. It uses metaphor, relating the notes as “footprints” along the “shore of the page.” Because it also deals with words, Billy Collins’s poem “Thesaurus” contains some similar-type comparisons and descriptions. In the poem “Thesaurus,” a key feature is the use of an extended metaphor for a large portion of this poem. It relates the words in the thesaurus to a family at a reunion in a park: It means treasury, but it is just a place where words congregate with their relatives,
Cabano 7 a big park where hundreds of family reunions are always being held, house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs, all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos; hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes, inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph. (“Thesaurus” lines 5-14) The words are given personalities and lives by the word choice Collins employs, allowing the reader to almost see what is going on. A great visual example of this sort of detail and imagery can be found in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, released in 2010 (Appendix F). Tim Burton is the director of numerous films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The visual details, vibrant colors, and bizarre images throughout Alice provide a very intense visual experience. This children’s story follows the journey of a girl named Alice through Underland, a place she enters after falling down a rabbit hole while chasing the white rabbit (Philips, par. 5). Through her many adventures she must save Underland from the Red Queen and the Jabberwock[y] – an evil beast (Li, par. 3). Throughout the film, many visual metaphors and alternate meanings are used, and the detail and “craziness” is vivid and bright. It is “spectacular to the
Cabano 8 senses” (Li, par. 6) per movie critic John Li. An example of this is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Mad Hatter. He is a visually stunning character with all the wrong colors of a normal human being, such as bright orange hair, white skin, and “yellowish green eyeballs.” (Li, par. 8). This film is a remake/retelling of a film of the same name that was released when Collins was a child, and because it is regarded as a “classic” film, there is a good chance that a young Billy Collins watched this film. Perhaps what he saw in it had an influence on him as far as description and detail goes. It is yet another childhood experience that could, even if subconsciously, form your adult life and thought processes. Not everyone may realize or experience it, but music can paint mental pictures just as clearly and brightly as in poetry or other written literature. A fine example of this is the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles, released in 1967 off the revolutionary album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The song, often falsely rumored to be about the drug LSD, is quite a visual experience for a song. The instruments used in it such as the tambora as well as the dreamy, far-away lyrics create brightly detailed images in the listener’s head. Interviews in the book The Beatles Anthology document John Lennon saying that the inspiration for the song originally came from a painting his son Julian had drawn in school – a painting of his friend Lucy “in the sky with diamonds.” Lennon immediately took a liking to it and began writing a song with fellow Beatles partner Paul McCartney, who said that the two of them were “swapping psychedelic suggestions” to use to go along with the title (242).
Cabano 9 Collins uses the odd ideas of things such as “people squeezing into the bodies of animals” (“The Afterlife,” lines 22-23) and margin notes as “footprints across the shore of a page” just as Lennon and McCartney sing of “cellophane flowers,” “kaleidoscope eyes,” and “newspaper taxis.” Those really get the reader thinking, trying to imagine what those images would look like based off of context and previous knowledge. Coincidentally, John Lennon said that some of the imagery for this poem was inspired by Through the Looking Glass, the 2nd of the original Alice in Wonderland books by Lewis Carroll, which was also incorporated into the movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (242). This shows even more unity and similarity in detail and imagery in poetry, films, and music. Billy Collins’s use of detail and description is something shared throughout his poems, other poetry, and artwork throughout his life and our life today. All of these utilize description, figurative language, comparisons, and humor to create a vivid mental scene of what is happening in it, fulfilling the brain’s desire for sensory “morsels.” Art throughout the world may be a subtle (or not-so-subtle) attempt to satisfy this in the artist, each in his own different way of expression. Words and images can be one and the same, and Billy Collins uses this well by using one to create the other in his poems. He brings the influence of his life with his creative mind to achieve great poems. Collins is a visual wizard.