Saturday, December 31, 2022

Small Things - Billy Collins’ “Musical Tables"

Don't ask me to explain it, but Billy Collins has always been a cat guy to me. Imagine my surprise, then, to encounter the following poem, "Morning Walk":

The dog stops often
to sniff the poems of others
before reciting her own.

Be grateful I'm feeling uncharacteristically restrained, I have (many) pictures of Desi & Poppy writing little poems, here's one of them not doing that. 

Not only was I surprised to see Collins celebrating a dog (again, can't explain it, he just reads like a cat guy) I was also surprised by how short the verse was. Collins is hardly a long-winded poem; his speakers are brief. They make their little observation, joke, whatever, and move on. I started reading Musical Tables right after Christmas, probably the fastest I've gotten to a new book I'd been excited about reading (two months! not too shabby!) in years. I continued reading it. Then, like that, it was over.

The new book of poems by is good (not great). Whale Day and Aimless Love felt more complete, but Musical Tables has a singular project: to write small poems. In Collins' words: the fascination for small poems began "with nursery rhymes" and begin exposed to haiku in high school; "I loved the suddenness of small poems. They seemed to arrive and depart at the same time, disappearing in a wink." Take, for example, "Lazy Creator" and "Weekday" and behold the full spread between the two poems:

Collins' goal, to recreate his own methodological approach to reading poetry ("whenever I pick up a new book of poems, I flip through the pages looking for small ones. Just as I might trust an abstract painter more if I knew he or she could draw a credible chicken, I have faith in poets who can go short") suffers from its own success. There's great wisdom in the space between the slight lines of "And on the second day / he retired" of "Lazy Creator" and the "Pure sunlight" shown in "Weekday" but Collins' signature wit, charm, borderline eye-rolly turns of phrase (important note: Collins is my first and forever-favorite poet, that's a compliment not a criticism, I swear) is undone without the well-worn worlds he builds around the punchlines of his poetry.

Still, when Musical Tables works, it works well. "Small poems are drastic examples of poetry's way of squeezing large content into tight spaces" but "unlike haiku, the small poem has no rules expect to be small. Its length, or lack of it, is its only formal requirement." If Collins were more of a formalist (again: a compliment) the liberation of the small poem could really be a revelation, but most of the book - a two-sitting read, half-aloud to the baby, half-to myself while he slept - is forgettable. Nobel in its aims, crafty it is misses. The hits, though, are really something. Another example, a thematic Billy Collins greatest hit, on poetry:

A Small Hotel

When a match touched the edge of the page, my poem filled with smoke,
then a few words were seen to stumble out in nothing but their nightgowns
with no idea which way to run.

For a Billy Collins book, the approach to genre & craft was, at first disarming. The tiny bits of wisdom that do linger, linger just as well as any of Collins' best poetry. I'm looking forward to sitting with this collection, and at the very least, it will be very easy to read again.

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