Books: Ballistics

Ballistics by Billy Collins qualifies so far as the greatest departure from my normal reading. It’s a poetry book. And I enjoyed it. Weird…

I haven’t read any poetry since high school except the odd scrap in fantasy anthologies, and a couple by the esteemed Neil Gaiman. I think poetry has always baffled me. Most of the older material from school required effort to unpack and understand. You didn’t read a poem, you analyzed it. While I enjoy reading that requires attention and mindfulness, those experiences were too much even for me.

But Collins has opened my eyes to the possibilities of poetry. His language, wit, and insight make it a pleasure to simply read.

Another big issue with poetry revolves around the subject matter–what’s a poem about? There’s a lot of history that makes me at least assume poetry must be about something deep and serious–the purpose of life, love and death. But Collins writes on all sorts of things, and even when he writes about those more “traditional” poetry topics, it’s rarely what I expect.

Poetry itself is a common focus in what I’ve read from Collins so far. It’s fascinating to read poems like “The Poems of Others,” “January in Paris,” “The Great American Poem,” and “Ballistics” weighing in on the form itself (from “The Great American Poem”):

But this is a poem, not a novel,
and the only characters here are you and I,
alone in an imaginary room
which will disappear after a few more lines

His eye toward poetry has its lighter moments too (from “The Effort”):

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts–
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

Often his language is starkly beautiful, lush without being too flowery, perfectly balanced (from “The First Night”):

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

But most of all I love his wit and playfulness. From “Adage” where he sculpts poetry from the cliched phrases, to “Tension” where he skewers the overuse of the adverb “suddenly,” when Collins wants to be funny he’s hilarious. This leads up to one of my favorite poems in the whole book “This Little Piggy Went to Market”:

What always stopped me in my tracks was
the middle toe–this little piggy ate roast beef.
I mean I enjoy a roast beef sandwich
with lettuce and tomato and a dollop of horseradish,
but I cannot see a pig ordering that in a delicatessen.

His mock seriousness as he dissects the famous children’s rhyme had me in stitches, and made a fan of me if I wasn’t already by that point in the book.

Ballistics is highly recommended. If you don’t like poetry, haven’t ever read it, don’t know what it’s about, give this book a try. You won’t regret it.

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  1. I was browsing through blogs this evening and I came across yours and I noticed this post. Collins is my all-time favorite poet, he always seems to have poems that are accessible and yet not stereotypical. Ballistics was published not long after his divorce from his wife so you'll find that it is overall a bit heavier than most of his other stuff. If you haven't already looked into it then "Sailing Alone Around the Room" is good as well as "The Trouble With Poetry."

    Happy Reading.

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