The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems
Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America’s two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed. Like the present book’s title, Collins’s poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony, “Poetry speaks to all people, it is said, but here I would like to address / only those in my own time zone”–but also with quiet observation, intense wonder, and a reverence for the everyday: “The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows. / They are at their windows in every section of the tangerine of earth–the Chinese poets looking up at the moon, / the American poets gazing out / at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.” Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn’t have to be obscure or incomprehensible, qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with most “serious” poetry: “By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet.” In this dazzling new collection, his first in three years, Collins explores boyhood, jazz, love, the passage of time, and, of course, writing–themes familiar to Collins’s fans but made new here. Gorgeous, funny, and deeply empathetic, Billy Collins’s poetry is a window through which we see our lives as if for the first time. From the Hardcover edition.
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Watch the video below on tone and mood. Billy Collins, the author of these poems, is known for several things, one of which is the humorous tone he has throughout his writing. His humor touches upon silly experiences but also works its way into more serious themes. As you read on, you will be asked to identify his tone using clues in his poems, and to analyze how his tone connects to larger themes within his work. If you could pick one word to describe the tone he uses in this poem, what would it be? (This annotation contains a video)
This book of poetry, as the title suggests, talks about what's wrong with poetry. Collins doesn't mean poetry, in general, but rather modern poetry, poetry from the past, and the direction poetry is going. Pay attention to the criticisms he has of poetry, and we will look at how these coalesce to help us understand larger themes within his work. What suggestions does he make about the poet's life at the end of this poem?
Which of the following BEST describes the tone that Collins uses towards his own vocation?
Did you know that this curriculet has a built-in "Define" tool? To use this feature, simply click on any one word, and a select "Define." A few definitions should appear in a pop-up box. (Note: not all words will be found in the built-in dictionary). Practice using this tool by selecting the word "equestrian" from the text.
Do you notice how both the mood and tone of this poem change here? What tells you that these have changed? Most often tone and mood can be identified by the poet's words. Words convey both mood and tone. Words like "sickly" and "cold stone beds" and "drowned" should help you as you determine these elements of the poem.
The words Collins uses in the last few lines of this poem, particularly the lines, "down on my knees, eyes lifted, / praying to the passing clouds, / forever begging for just one more day," BEST indicate the climaxing _________ of the poet in this poem.
In the final lines of this poem, Collins reveals how he feels about the real subject of his poem. What exactly is he referring to when he says he creates a "tranquil pond / and gives the mallards somewhere to paddle"?
Once you have a good sense of the tone in a poem (and, therefore, know how the author feels about his or her subject), you will start to see patterns about both subjects and attitudes. Sometimes the author states his feelings up front; other times you don't find out how he feels until the end of a poem. These two elements of a poem help you get a sense of themes. Watch the video below to learn about themes, and answer the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
As Collins imagines the people who owned the house before him, his tone towards himself gradually changes. How does he end up feeling by the end of the poem? What evidence from the text do you have to support your response?
Imagery is another important element of Collins' poetry. He uses imagery to help us see, feel, and hear what he experiences. This helps us enter the mood of the poem and get a sense of his tone, too. The video below explains the importance of imagery. What mood does Collins create through the highlighted imagery? (This annotation contains a video)
Collins conveys an obvious tone as he tries to live out his day "In the Moment." What theme does his attitude towards this subject MOST highlight?
Richard II and his queen, Anne, are shown below. This image, along with other images in this poem, contribute to the melancholy tone. What is Collins so distressed about? (This annotation contains an image)
In trying to put a twist on an age-old theme, Collins fails to do so. Ironically, he writes a poem about themes that actually has a theme. Which of the following BEST captures the theme of this poem?
Have you noticed that certain images and ideas appear consistently throughout Collins' work? These are called motifs. The title of the poem, "Eastern Standard Time," and "sundial," for example, are two images related to time. Watch the video below to learn more about motifs. We will examine this element of Collins' work more closely throughout this Curriculet. (This annotation contains a video)
Part I Quiz
In the first section of Collins' work, you looked at tone and mood, how themes emerge, imagery, and motifs. Now you will consider all of these elements, and dig deeper into the meaning, themes, and purposes behind Collins' poems. Make sure to reference the annotations and videos in the first section if you need a refresher on these topics.
What does this introductory poem in the second section tell you about how Collins is changing his perspective?
What motif in this poem is MOST related to the motif surrounding the reference to King George II and Anne of Bohemia in "The Peasants' Revolt"?
As we look at themes, take a moment and think about Collins' perspective on the past, the present, and the future. In what ways does he establish the importance of the present? What does the highlighted comment suggest he feels about the past and the future? (Hint: What does the phrase "only child" imply?)
Sometimes poets imply a feeling or an idea rather than say it outright. Which lines from this poem BEST convey Collins' sense of wonder that surround life after death?
As mentioned in the previous question in this curriculet, authors and poets don't always state directly how they think or feel. Sometimes they use sarcasm, as Collins does in this poem, to derisively point out an idea that is tragic or sad. Sarcasm, understatement, and even exaggeration fall under the category of irony. The following video explains the different kinds of irony. Why do you think Collins uses irony and sarcasm in "Flock"? (This annotation contains a video)
In both "Boyhood" and "Building with Its Face Blown Off," Collins is creating tension between
In Collins' work, he often sends the message that life is about perspective. The "Special Glasses" in this poem are, obviously, a symbol for perspective. What perspective does he take to help get over this "girl"? Can you relate to his perspective?
A picture of a plastic lanyard is shown below. Like the last poem in the second section, this lanyard is most likely a symbol for something. See if you can catch its meaning. (This annotation contains an image)
Watch the following interpretation of this poem, and answer the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
What does the reader of Collins' poem, "The Lanyard," emphasize about this poem?
This isn't the first time Collins has used a statue in this collection of poetry. What do you call a reoccurring image or idea? A motif. Let's take a look at what meaning this statue takes in this poem.
The statue is a motif that emphasizes the tragedy of war, and the boy dances playfully around it. What larger theme does this motif and the image of the boy poem MOST connect to?
Do you think words, like genius, and their meaning change over time? Collins does. Although the theme of this poem is not as somber as his themes about time and death, this theme reflects his ability to critique language, art, and our culture. What meaning does he ultimately attribute to the word genius in this poem?
What is ironic about the last several lines of this poem?
What imagery does Collins MOST contrast in "The Order of the Day"?
Virginia Woolf, a famous English novelist, from the early 20th century, is best known for her emergence a female writer in the stream of consciousness literary movement. She committed suicide because of, what some suspect, her struggle with bipolar disorder. She walked into the River Ouse, and no one ever saw her again. Notice how Collins' perspective changes through the poem. He begins on a lighthearted note, but, almost inevitably, his thoughts wander to death. (This annotation contains an image)
How are "The Drive" and "On Not Finding You at Home" MOST different from the other poems in this collection?
The centrifuge that Collins alludes to here is, most likely, the Johnsville centrifuge (shown below). This machine was used to train astronauts before their launch into outer space. It helped them prepare their bodies for propulsion and intense gravitational effects. (This annotation contains an image)
Part II Quiz
Look up this word before you read this poem.
This poem is obviously told from the perspective of a dog. He is addressing his master once he dies and goes to heaven. Although this poem is silly, and even though the dog has quite a biting tone, there is a serious message in it. What message do you think Collins is trying to make through this poem?
The three wise monkeys (shown below) represent a maxim in Japanese culture that perhaps you have heard before: "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." (This annotation contains an image)
What is the meaning of the extended metaphor Collins uses in this poem for the middle monkey?
This poem is also about perspective. In what way does Collins' perspective shift? How can this shift in perspective be applied to your life?
Which of the following BEST describes how Collins uses imagery in this poem?
Collins speaks with a sentimental tone throughout this poem, then suddenly, unexpectedly, shifts to a sarcastic tone and brings up a fictitious event (Superman) we know is not true. What do the contrasting images at the end of this poem suggest about Collins' view of life after death?
This is the second poem in which Collins writes from the perspective of a dog. Only this time, it is slightly different--he is himself thinking in terms of a dog. Why does he see himself through this lens in this poem?
Who is the subject of this poem?
What tone does Collins have towards his new art class? How does this relate to his work as a poet?
Which of the following BEST describes Collins message in this poem?
Think for a moment about what Collins does with images in this poem. What affect do they have on him? How does this idea relate to his overarching theme about the nature of his poetry?
Which of the following is NOT a statement that Collins makes about his poetic craft in "The Trouble with Poetry"?
Part III Quiz