Billy Collins, Roses, and beagles

I recently discovered the Slate magazine weekly poem column – well worth checking out. Each week a new poem read by the author (or, if the author is someone dead, read by Robert Pinsky). There’s also a comments free-for-all, suitably titled “The Fray”. I’ve lurked a bit, but not joined. But again, worth having a browse through, even if only to see how wildly divergent people’s readings of the same line can be.

The one that’s caught my attention is Billy Collins’s “Roses”. I’m hoping to put a close reading of it up in the Commentaries section soon(ish), but for now just go have a look and a listen – click on the link to hear the poem in the poet’s own voice. I’ll wait for you.

I enjoy Billy Collins, but I often feel slightly (or quite) exasperated with him. I almost always feel as though he stopped editing the poems five seconds after starting. (Actually it’s an interesting thing to do for yourself – take one of his longer poems, and edit it. Pretend it’s yours, and cut it back. Then compare it with the original. Better? Worse?) But that’s his style – laconic, laid-back. Waffle with a twinkle, and (usually) a purpose. Poems that wear slightly rumpled jackets with patches on the elbows, and an air of good-natured, self-deprecating engagement with the oddities and foibles of the world around them/him. It’s part of his appeal. Reading a Billy Collins poem is like watching a beagle – following one scent over here, then picking up something else interesting over there and following that, then noticing something else and darting off to follow it all the way around the fenceline … happily (and busily) criss-crossing the garden, with the journey itself being both the point and the reward. There’s usually some fixed point of departure and arrival, and the whole romp tends to be contained within some sort of conceptual framework (the yard?). We start at point A and finish at point B, but all manner of digression will happen along the way. It’s fun, and one of the many reasons why his books sell in such huge quantities. And there is quite a sharp mind in there – his best poems have edge to them. (Beagles hunt extremely well.)

As I began by (almost) saying, I’m absorbed in “Roses” at the moment. There’s a lot going on in there, but two things in particular are nagging at me. The first is relevant to my comments on editing. Why is the first line of stanza two so long? That middle stanza is by far the most regular, except for its first line. At thirteen syllables (as opposed to the 11 and 10 syllables of the other six lines) it’s quite long. Protracted even. If you listen to him read, you can hear the stutteringness of those syllables:

then how terrible the expressions on their faces

with syllables in bold being those he emphasises (although ‘on’ is only lightly stressed). ‘On their faces’ feels redundant, although it probably isn’t. Flowers don’t have faces … except they do, and certainly if you’re turning flowers into old(er) women who were once girls of negotiable virtue, it would be nice to see their faces at some point. But … take out ‘on their faces’, and the word ‘expressions’ gets quite a bit of extra meaning, which makes the ending of the first stanza seem a bit darker (or possibly just naughtier). Plus it brings the expressions of the onlookers into play. And not just their smiles or frowns or looks of disgust; their verbal expressions too, the “oh!”s and “hrmph”s and “yuck!”s. And the physical gestures – the pointings and the turning aways and the furtive fondles. Or, if you want to keep the faces there and restrict the play of connotation, why such a latinate word as ‘expressions’?  Why not ‘look’ or ‘looks’? Saves two syllables, the sound brings you to a stop in front of them (that lovely crisp k) and the connotations of the word bring in the voyeurism much earlier.

I’m perfectly aware that the unanswerable response to my question is ‘because it’s his poem’. But it’s still interesting to think around the outside of what’s there, and contemplate what would change if done differently. (And my own best answer to the question is: to make a link with the first stanza, which alternates quite short lines with much longer ones, thereby making the first line of stanza two also feel (in length terms anyhow) like an eighth line of stanza one. Who knows?)

The other irk is more of a puzzle, and has to do with that thing I’m becoming too well known for: a comma. Or more precisely, a missing comma. It’s the list of ‘neighbours passing by’ that begins the third stanza:

the thin mail carrier, the stocky butcher
(thank God the children pay no attention),
the swiveling faces in the windows of the buses,
and now this stranger staring over the wall,

Did you notice it too? Each of the list items is separated by a comma. Except for ‘the stocky butcher’ and that parenthetical comment ‘thank God the children pay no attention’. Whaa?

Maybe it’s my lack of formal grammatical knowledge (or my comma-pedantry), but to me that makes the remark about the children related to the stocky butcher. If the children were meant to be just another group of onlookers, surely there would be a comma after ‘butcher’? If it was a milkman we were talking about, I’d interpret that as being a bit of a nudge-nudge wink-wink comment, harking back to our earlier image of the roses as having been ‘on their girlish backs / in the rough beds’. But a butcher has a different set of associations altogether, and especially (although puzzlingly) if we associate him with children, and their act of not seeing what’s going on.Moritz v d Tomburg

Maybe I need to turn the whole thing over to a beagle?

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14 thoughts on “Billy Collins, Roses, and beagles

  1. Joanna,
    Really enjoyed your post. I’m a fan of Billy Collins and the whole laid-back accessibilitiy of his poetry. I know what you mean about the line of the second stanza, it does seem a bit too long, yet it sort of tumbles you into the next line….I like it.

    On the other portion, I could only imagine that his parenthetical remark was imagined to have the comma’s purpose on its own? Not sure….

    In any case, I enjoyed the line and was listening to NPR’s archives yesterday to Collins reading some of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Really liking the quiet cadence…he also read a portion of “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” which is such a fun way to twist her own lines. Have you seen it?

  2. I couldn’t see why you objected to the missing comma. And then I read on. As far as I can recall, it is absolutely grammatically correct to leave the comma out here. As long as you accept that the children are related to the butcher. The butcher is up to something which, fortunately, the children are paying no attention to.
    If the children are just another group of passers by, then they shouldn’t be in parentheses at all, surely?

  3. Ooops! – I wrote that before clicking through to read the rest of the poem – it does seem as if it is meant to be the roses that the children are paying no attention to.

  4. Generally speaking, a pair of parenthesis act as a pair of commas so, if anything I might suggest that the comma *after* the closing parenthesis may not be needed, but it seems the poet wishes to be sure the reader links the children to the butcher, not for the children to be a complete aside unrelated to anything else on the list …

    The mind of a poet, pah! Filled with dandelion seed and red ribbons. Who knows what’s going on in there. 🙂

    • The punctuation might, but does the description? If you go with that solution, then why not add the thin mail carrier as their mother? There’s nothing against it. Which is kinda the point I was making. It’s one of those thing that we could argue about happily for weeks. Month. Years, even.
      (Mr Collins, if you’re out there and would care to elucidate …?)

  5. I went to the Slate website and listened to Billy Collins read his poem, and from that it appears that the children, “thank God”, are paying no attention to the roses and are simply another part of that list.

    Not sure why it’s in parentheses on the page, but it sounded sensible in his reading.

    I think he’s terrific. Dropped deep hints when I spotted a CD in Auckland’s Unity Books of him reading his work at a live performance – got it for Christmas, too. We had it on as we all sat down to our midday-ish feast and I burst into tears as I listened to “The Lanyard”. A great and moving (and funny) poem about the relationship between mothers and children and children and mothers.

    • In his reading of “The Roses” he changes ‘Was it all really worth it’ to ‘Was that all really worth it’, which does slightly shift the way you interpret the poem. (She says, to muddy the waters further.)

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