Monday, December 1, 2008

What is the poet trying to say?

Yesterday, I stumbled upon "Effort" by Billy Collins in his new collection Ballistics. My uncle, Tom, had left the book lying on a table at my grandfather's house, so I picked it up and the pages fell open to "Effort." Collins's style always makes me feel as though the poet has sidled up to me at a family gathering to tell me an important (and well-composed) secret, and this time was no different.

(Disclaimer: I'm working from memory here, so please forgive me if I resort to paraphrase) The poem opens with a gentle rant against those teachers who always asked the question mentioned in the title. The speaker then gives us the comical image of Emily Dickinson chewing her pen, looking out the window, trying to figure out what to say. The rant resonates with me now especially because, as I am teaching a mixed-genre workshop here in my community, I often find myself in the position of having to either field this exact question, or listen to the not-so-gentle rants against my students' past teachers who pestered to death any potential love they may have had for poetry with said question.

Collins whispers slyly to the reader: It's okay not to know. And besides, you can relieve yourself of the responsibility of being the authority. The poem then turns cleverly to the speaker's own poetic subject. In letting his readers off the hook, Collins also excuses himself from having to make something with "absolute" meaning. He talks of absence, describes the night. And leaves it to future generations and future ruler-tapping high school teachers to figure out what it is he's been trying to say.

I appreciate the humor and candor in this poem, as well as the characteristic Collins humility that so incredibly accompanies such lovely language and elegant lines. I look forward to reading the rest of his new collection.

News of the submission slog: I am receiving rejections weekly, if not daily, these days. This at least proves I am doing the work of getting my poems out there. And most of my recent ones have been more than the one word, "No" that I once received by email. Can't say that I'd be unhappy to have an acceptance or two thrown into the mix. But I'll continue to slog on. Next targets: Beloit Poetry Journal and Minnetonka Review.

Happy December!

-- Jill

No comments: