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NOV
01

Meeting your Favorite Poet: Be Cool

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It's like this. Billy Collins is my favorite poet. Although I'm in an eternal argument with my parents around whether his work really constitutes poetry, I find it delightful no matter the classification. 

Billy was in Brooklyn this past week, and though it was my second time seeing him, it was the first time I actually got to meet him. When you're the kind of person dorky enough to have a favorite poet, dorky enough to trek across town to meet him, dorky enough to end-of-the-world-style panic when your re-routed subway train makes you late, dorky enough to ask someone to take your picture while sitting in your auditorium seat waiting for Billy to come out, then you are probably also the kind of person who will totally dork out when actually face to face with him.

As I approached the front of the line after the reading, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to say. "Nice job." Or maybe, "I love your work." I decided to tell him that it was my second time seeing him (a true fan, see), and I told him which of his poems was my favorite. It's a poem that praises the familiarity of home and routine, especially in contrast with the stress and annoyances of travel, and as a staunch homebody, I always took great comfort in it. Only when I heard him read the poem in Cleveland the first time I saw him, it became clear by his tone that he was not, in fact, siding with the homebodies. He was mocking the very idea that staying in one's own environment could be superior to exploring the world. I felt a little disillusioned, and as I told Billy this story last week, I wished he would tell me what I wanted to hear, which is that my initial way of looking at the poem had been right. But he didn't, of course. Yet even as he was confirming my gross interpretation error, I couldn't wipe the dopey look off my face, hovering at the table even as he'd moved on to sign the next person's book.

Maybe no one can expect to be cool when in the presence of a literary idol. Maybe no one can expect to correctly decipher an author's intent 100% of the time. And I can live with that. Although I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish his "To Tali" inscription had come with a more personalized post script. Something like, "From a fellow homebody." It would have been our secret, Billy.

 

MAY
11

The Lanyard

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This poem has special meaning to me. Not just because of all the lanyards I tied in my childhood, but also because it of course makes me think of my mom. Oh, and it's also hilarious. So Happy Mother's Day to all the women out there. (Shot above brought to you circa 1985.)

OCT
09

J. Alfred

If you've read The History of Love, you'll recall the story about the age of glass, where everyone believed a part of himself to be extremely fragile. The book tells the story of a young man who fell in love but every time he kissed the girl and his knees began to shake, he worried that a part of him would shatter. One night to protect himself he pulls back and leans away, the girl feels hurt, and in the course of explaining ("Part of me is made of glass."), he only makes it worse. Later, he couldn't shake this regret: "That in the most important moment of his life he had chosen the wrong sentence."

This line haunts me. Because it's so beautifully accurate. And also because there are few things more punishing than regret. I have experienced this regret myself...wondered if a certain situation may have turned out differently had I not said a line I'd been rehearsing for just such a moment but rather said what actually came to me in the moment itself. Sometimes I think I've done too much planning and preparing and not enough living.

Which got me thinking about Prufrock. Because how much does my History of Love story sound like this stanza:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                             90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.
  That is not it, at all."

Or this one:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,                                           100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  "That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all."

Yes, sometimes it is impossible to say just what we mean, and even after we try, it is often not what we meant. That is not what I meant, at all. Perhaps it's inevitable though. We're destined to see our greatness flicker, to shatter our own selves in the quest to remain whole. Oh my gosh, what am I saying? Look what poetry does to people. Let me slap myself upside the head and leave you with this parting thought: Eat that peach, J. Part that hair behind.

JUN
07

Torturing Confessions out of Poetry

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I typed the word "stopping" into google search this morning, and the first thing that came up was "stopping by woods on a snowy evening." Which, incidentally, was exactly what I was looking for. What a tribute to Robert Frost that is. Impressive. The poem has been on my mind since having a conversation with my brother the other day. He's in college and was expressing frustration over professors who insist upon a "right" meaning or interpretation of a piece of writing. I know what he's saying, and I can see both sides of the argument. It seems narrow-minded (and presumptuous) for us to assign a single meaning to a poem or story, but, then again, authors usually do have a particular meaning or theme in mind when they write. Especially these short mediums.

The first poem that came to my mind was Introduction to Poetry (Billy Collins), because it captures this frustrating sentiment perfectly; the idea that sometimes we just want to read poetry, revel in it, delight in it, relate it to our own lives, draw our own parallels. But in an educational setting, it's all about the meaning. The right meaning. I can remember several times in my college years when I suggested meanings or interpretations and was told, "No, he/she didn't mean that." Most times I was probably just wrong, but I also think that we can't assume we know everything about why authors say the things they do. Speaking of Billy, we were once given an assignment in a poetry class to take a certain poem of his and make an assumption based on the contents of the poem. It's the poem with the beautiful description of introducing a child to the moon, followed by the suggestion--if your house has no child--to "gather in your arms the sleeping infant of yourself." The description that follows, that of a sleepy infant-in-arms, struck me as painfully sweet. The assumption I turned into the professor was this: "Billy Collins has no children." To which the professor actually scoffed, claiming it was simply not possible for a childless man to describe so perfectly the limp and lolling head of a sleepy baby. As a childless person myself, I can tell you that this professor overestimates the difference between experience and circumstance.

So back to Robert Frost. I once heard a professor tell of a particularly unique student interpretation of Stopping by Woods which claimed that the narrator might be none other than Santa Claus. There are details in the poem (snow, nearly the darkest evening of the year...think about the timing of winter solstice, the "small horse," miles to go, etc). The poem is not about Santa, but the student got full marks on the paper, which, as I pointed out to my brother, is how I think writing ought to be approached. Your interpretation might be wrong, but especially if you can make a good case, your opinion is still valid and should be heard. These types of dialogues and questioning are healthy, keep us open to new ideas, and make literature that much more accessible. And isn't that the point?

MAY
05

Brown Penny

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In a college English class years ago, we had to at one point recite a poem from memory. I picked Yeats' Brown Penny, partly because I think it's my favorite poem, and partly (mostly) because it was the shortest one I could find that still met the length requirement of the assignment.

I've been thinking about Brown Penny lately. It's a poem about love that manages to come across as delightfully sweet and hopeful without dripping with cliche or dragging on. It's a poem that I cannot think of without letting out a contended sigh. It's a poem I keep on my fridge to this day. And if you've ever seen Must Love Dogs, it's the poem that Christopher Plummer recites at his birthday party. Find that clip, watch it right now, and I'm pretty sure you'll hear yourself sigh.

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