See No Evil – Poet Billy Collins – “Poetry is Balm for the Soul”

The Trouble with Poetry was wedged between Annie Proulx’s Close Range and the Peterson Field Guide, making up a lifetime of books, purchased, not borrowed or lent, but loved enough, standing one by one like a row of sentries flanking the mantel, guarding two wooden boxes now filled with the ashes of its owners. The ashes belong to my children’s grandparents.

But whose book was it, his or hers?

I pulled the slim volume from its post, ran my hand across its cover, wondered who held it last and what it meant to them.  Distinguished by its modern jacket and lack of dust, the poetry collection was published in 2005 by Billy Collins.

Book inscription:  “My idea of paradise is a perfect automobile going thirty miles an hour on a smooth road to a twelfth-century cathedral.” — Henry James  (Link to book)

Busy friends say they don’t have time to read books, so I suggest short stories. Better, try poetry.  Try Collins.  There’s time at the breakfast table or waiting in the car or before bed.  It will reach you, surprise you, touch you.

It will change you.

Here’s a favorite from this collection.

See No Evil

No one expected all three of them
to sit there on their tree stumps forever,
their senses covered with their sinuous paws
so as to shut out the vile, nefarious world.

As it happened,
it was the one on the left
who was the first to desert his post,
uncupping his ears,
then loping off into the orbit of rumors and lies,
but also into the realm of symphonies,
the sound of water tumbling over rocks
and wind stirring the leafy domes of trees.

Then the monkey on the right lowered his hands
from his wide mouth and slipped away
in search of someone to talk to,
some news he could spread,
maybe something to curse or shout about.

And that left the monkey in the middle
alone with his silent vigil,
shielding his eyes from depravity’s spectacle,
blind to the man whipping his horse,
the woman shaking her baby in the air,
but also unable to see
the russet sun on a rough shelf of rock
and apples in the grass at the base of a tree.

Sometimes, he wonders about the other two,
listens for the faint sounds of their breathing
up there on the mantel
alongside the clock and the candlesticks.

And some nights in the quiet house
he wishes he could break the silence with a question,

but he knows the one on his right
would not be able to hear,
and the one to his left,
according to their sacred oath–
the one they all took with one paw raised–
is forbidden forever to speak, even in reply.

–Billy Collins

“Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn’t have to traffic in obscurity or incomprehensibility – qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with the most ‘serious’ poetry.” (Book jacket)

I agree.

 

Collins tells us that evil exists but so does good.

If we shut our eyes and ears to one, do we not shut them to the other?  To see the “russet sun,” we suffer the sight of a “man whipping his horse.” The blind monkey remains and the other two desert him, leaving him with a false belief, not only in his blindness to the world, but the knowledge that the others were true to their oath.

I set aside Collins’s book and the rest I collected in boxes.  A few of the more decorative less interesting titles I arranged on either side of the mantel. The bare shelves were more than I wished to bear.

There is poetry in the connection: the three monkeys, this book on the shelf next to the mantel, both boxes of ashes. But there is something even more singular.

My son took from his grandma’s desk three small bronze monkeys, sitting on a circular case, housing a magnifying glass. They differed from the wise monkeys in this way: one held binoculars to his eyes, another had a bull horn against his mouth, and the last cupped his hands wide behind his ears.

One other favorite:

 

Flock

 It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible…required the skins of 300 sheep.
-from an article on printing

 

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

– Billy Collins

 

English teacher Chris Hart said: “I think reading poetry is one of the most important things anyone can do, and that reading slowly, and with deliberation, is a balm for the soul.”  He asks if Collins intends the reader to pity the sheep.  Read his analysis here:  Analysis of Flock

 

* Collins was the United States Poet Laureate and is Distinguished Professor at Lehman College (Link Poets.org Bio). He is one of the most popular, best selling, and well-regarded poets today.  He was asked by the Librarian of Congress to write a poem to remember the victims of 9/11 which he read at a special joint session in September 2002.  It is titled “The Names” and is heartbreaking.  YouTube link:  Billy Collins reads The Names

** As Poet Laureate, Collins instituted the program Poetry 180 for high schools. Collins chose 180 poems for the program and the accompanying book, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry—one for each day of the school year. (Wiki)  Link to  Poetry 180, A Poem a Day for American High Schools

 

 

About mylinhshattan

I’m a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. I hold a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.