Friday, September 18, 2009

Thank You, Billy Collins

I was reading this poem today, because it's one of my favorites, and it struck me how apt it is for those of us who try to put scents in words. This poem so gently, so amusingly and so effortlessly teaches me that putting any person or any sensual experience in words is arbitrary and ultimately a barrier to knowing. But what delectable fun you can have with arbitrary associations! But then you can also see the assignment of imagery in the poem as transcendent knowledge that acknowledges arbitrariness and knows something deeper, because by sharing the nourishing imagery (like the bread and wine) and assigning it to a loved one, the poet is partaking in a symbolic communion. One that is so playful it invites the reader to join in.

Anyway, I so adore the spiritual playfulness of this poem, and it struck me that I get a lot of joy from playing "pin-the-tail-on-the-perfume" in the blogosphere for sort of the same reasons. It's a playful way to exercise my writing and observation skills trying to describe something that is ephemeral and emotional. Whether I hit the nail on the head, or scatter arrows wide of my mark (to wildly mix metaphors while I'm at it--why not?), that's part of the fun. I'll shut up now so you can read this awesome poem.

Litany, by Billy Collins
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...

—Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.


BitterGrace said...

Great post about a great poem. They've given a happy coda to a very long day. Thanks!

Suzanah said...

I've heard Billy Collins read this poem more than once and explain it more than once. In writing it, he was reacting against the supposition of men through time that what women want is metaphors. He was trying to be funny by making unconnected comparisons as a parody of such poems, and he started with lines from Jacques Crickillon, who Billy said wrote the most awful poem of comparisons.

To me, one of the more interesting aspects of Billy Collins's poems is that when I read them myself I didn't think they were funny. When I heard him read them and others laughed I was surprised at first and then I joined them in the view that he was funny. But I still take all his poems seriously, too-- as you have done. I don't think you can make a mistake by taking them seriously.

Aimée L'Ondée said...

Glad you liked it BitterGrace!

Aimée L'Ondée said...

Suzanah, I love that Billy Collins wrote the poem as a satire of "what women want," like Roxane wanting to be seduced with words. Certainly the somewhat patronizing "But don't worry.... You are still the bread and the knife" backs that up. Like all brilliant fun, it is multiply meaningful, I think.

ScentScelf said...

And doesn't that some up this game of trying to capture our sense of a perfume, of anything? Sometimes we do search through metaphor, sometimes through a parable, sometimes by a recipe. It can be out there, it can just be.

I do think that all variations are valid, and I think you guys are right to find both the humorous and the straight up in Billy Collins. Or whatever. :)

Rose said...

I agree that's a brilliant poem. I will have to keep it- thanks

Heather said...


queen_cupcake said...

I'm so glad I came across this blog. I love that poem! Thanks, all.