Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Good Joke

Dear Everybody:

Easy one today! It’s Billy Collins again, with...

The Country
by Billy Collins

I wondered about you

when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice
might get into them and start a fire.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

As I said, an easy poem. I don’t have to explain any of it to you, do I? But the workings are wonderful, the unexpected little twists (“little brown druid”), the economy of narration (note how “lit up in the blazing insulation” deftly skips over actually mentioning the house catching fire), the bits of visual magic (“the tiny looks of wonderment” is an instant frozen in time). And it’s an excellent example of how often a poem moves “from the specific to the general,” as the academic phrase goes. In a conventional poem, this consists of an organized group of specific observations (the characteristics of dried grass, say, or the workings of a clock) and then soars upward at the end to a generalized observation, usually an abstraction (we are all as mortal as the grass, God is a watchmaker and he expects to be paid for that Rolex). Here, the imagined doings of the Promethean mouse are so wonderfully specific that we get caught up in its tiny drama. Then, at the very end, the camera pulls back to reveal the general, the larger picture: Your house has just burned down.

Yes, it’s a joke. Good one. But there’s also a serious point there about how we can get caught up in the small and valid details of our lives and miss the larger drama as well.

Nifty little poem. I learned last weekend that our friend Gail has never read any Billy Collins. So I’m sending her one of his books later today.

All best,

p.s. Another Hugo! That makes five in six years. Marianne tells me I’m the first ever to have done that.



Markin said...

Re: Hugo -- Bravo, Michael!

... And when may we expect a book of your poetry? [wicked grin]

Michael Swanwick said...

Do you know, I don't believe I've ever published any of my doggerel -- I don't write actual poetry -- under my own name? Except for my rhyme for orange, of course.

I've noticed that very few poets can keep true to verse while writing science fiction. Rebecca Ore gave it up entirely, so far as I know. As did Judith Moffett, whose CROSSING WHINNY MOOR was quite wonderful. I gather it's like having two wives and trying to keep them both happy.

Which makes one respect those rare few, like Tom Disch, who could manage the trick, all the more.