I went home after attending Billy Collins’ poetry performance and told my wife, “He was delightful,” and then I showed her a Youtube clip of him reading “The Lanyard.”
She’s recently had a baby boy so I knew she would enjoy it. “I’m glad you called him delightful,” she said. We talked a little bit about the poem and then I began to tell her the deeper change that took place during the performance. I can honestly say that the performance changed my life.
I was struck at the beauty of what he was saying. He had this subtle humor that was ...well I can’t think of any other word but delightful. It reminded me of the classic grandfather who is somewhat cynical and yet so tender.
He used the introduction of his poems to give depth to the poem, but it also showed the depth in himself. His insights before and after poems were inspiring and thought provoking. He said things like “the purpose of the poem was to bring her into existence, but I didn’t know that until I was finished,” he said this when he spoke of a single angel dancing to jazz on the head of a needle. “Poetry is language play,” he said at one point. I drew many points off that line. That’s what I mean when I say he was thought provoking.
I noticed quickly that he used everyday objects and experiences as his subject matter. This was relatable so much in fact that I shared some poems with my wife who also found it much more relatable than I did. It wasn’t complex subject matter. It pulled out the little joys in life and made it a little more fun to live. I am prone to work myself to dust, but his “stop and smell the roses” mentality was contagious and I found myself walking home a little slower that night.
And that’s how it changed me. I saw that literature was not a tool, though it is. Literature was not communicating, though it is. Literature is not for business, though it is. I found that literature is art. It dawned on me that I was pursuing the life of an artist. I realized this as I was brushing my teeth. I can’t tell you how many things come to people who brush their teeth. I’m sure relativity, the lightbulb and many other things were found out during a teeth brushing.
I noticed that he was not a formalist. He gave the poems background. But it wasn’t dry and factual background, rather it was the kind of information that makes you intrigued. I found myself anticipating the poems more as I understood where they came from.
I also enjoyed that he wasn’t trying to “say” anything. He had no agenda behind his work. They were simple and enjoyable and delightful. This is what I liked best. I didn’t have to feel like I was being persuaded to believe any doctrine. Although I did leave with the persuasion that life and beautiful, simple and fun. It changed my heart without really changing my thinking.
Overall Billy Collins’ performance changed how I think of literature. I will be indebted to him for his insight and skill. He was well composed, well crafted and just plain delightful. Thank you Billy.