Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nine Horses by Billy Collins: self-help for writers

It isn’t fashionable, or indeed, especially wise, to admit to loving Billy Collins amongst poetry aficionados. My borrowed library copy of Nine Horses bears the recommendation ‘Billy Collins is one of my favourite poets in the world’ from Carol Ann Duffy, and we all know what the poetry elite think of her. They sniff at Collins’ accessibility, his open references and narrative focus, his eternally marketable, populist brand of ‘comforting melancholy’. Poetry is a hallowed ground, where only the smartest, most beautiful people dare enter, and yet Collins has been handing out free trials and day passes to anybody who cares to take one.

I like Nine Horses, very much. It has touches of the sentimental, yes, and I guess it can be a bit mawkish, but its immediacy has continued to grab me in those snatched moments, brushing my teeth or waiting for the computer to reboot, over the last two months. Focusing on the conflict inherit in capturing the ephemeral, it is a delicately funny and painful tour through the anxieties of all writers.

In Nine Horses, Collins envisages people carrying out the most mundane daily tasks, surrounded by invisible speed lines, whisking them, silently, to their inevitable death. He entertains paranoid fantasies of losing everything, all because of one careless omission. He basks in the buzz of waking up to a fresh day and a blank piece of paper, and then agonises over the gap between the cold, concrete, nuts and bolts of making art, against what it comes to represent. Speaking of Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Gray and Black, all Collins can do is berate the artist, as he;
…imagines how the woman’s heart
Could have broken
By being demoted from mother
To mere arrangement, a composition without color...
...Like Botticelli calling The Birth of Venus
‘Composition on Blue, Ocher, Green, and Pink,’
or the other way around,
Like Rothko labeling one of his sandwiches of color
‘Fishing Boats Leaving Falmouth Harbor at Dawn’.

I always fear that we all sell our integrity when we tell our stories, prostituting our romantic failures or serious fears in exchange for a laugh or a bit of sympathy.

In Tipping Point, Collins idly wonders on the 36th anniversary of Eric Dolphy’s death, aged 36;

did anyone sense something
when another Eric Dolphy lifetime
was added to the span of his life,

when we all took another
full Dolphy step forward in time,
flipped over the Eric Dolphy yardsick once again?

Although you could argue this highlights the arbitrary nature of time, Tipping Point is still a desperately anxious poem, with Collins’ own anxieties, about how much he has achieved against how much time he has left to achieve more, hovering above each word. I always promised myself that I would have written my first book by the time I was 25, and each day I sweat a little more when I realise I have less time to hold me now. For some reason, I measure my life backwards to my fourteenth birthday – 14 is my Eric Dolphy time. Likewise, in Birthday, Collins calculates how much time he may have left, ‘a small box of Octobers, a handful of Aprils’, time enough to reach the last of the 1533 pages of Clarissa, a life eaten away by so many words.

Although I love writing, I view it as a necessary evil, like smoking or drinking – an addiction I would like to shake, yet I would feel disappointed if I actually succeeded. I become restless and irritable if I don’t have space or time to write and although I love my friends and family, they get in the way of my pen and paper. I hate few things more than the phone ringing, or realising the house is dirty when I haven’t written that day. It feels like life is interfering with the stuff that matters. I also hate writing – the hand-wringing, the embarrassing mistakes, the rushed drafts and the knowledge that you have thrown away another day when you could have been in the world instead of writing about it. I’m sure it is a profound waste of time, and that it is inhibiting my abilities to be a smarter, more generous and less selfish person. But I still don’t want to stop yet.

I’m hopeful that one day I will no longer indulge this adolescent habit, else I’m pretty sure I will spend a significant part of my life miserable, either because I can’t write or because I can’t stop writing. Collins’ Writing in the Afterlife is my purgatory;

I imagined the atmosphere would be clear,
shot with pristine light,
not this sulphurous haze,
the air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

Many have pictured a river here,
but no one mentioned all the boats,
their benches crowded with naked passengers,
each bent over a writing tablet.

I knewI would not always be a child
with a model train and a model tunnel,
and I knew I would not live forever,
jumping all day through the hoop of myself.

I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed

that as soon as we arrived
we would be asked to describe this place
and to include as much detail as possible—
not just the water, he insists,

rather the oily, fathomless, rat-happy water,
not simply the shackles, but the rusty,
iron, ankle-shredding shackles—
and that our next assignment would be

to jot down, off the tops of our heads,
our thoughts and feelings about being dead,
not really an assignment,
the man rotating the oar keeps telling us—

think of it more as an exercise, he groans,
think of writing as a process,
a never-ending, infernal process,
and now the boats have become jammed together,

bow against stern, stern locked to bow,
and not a thing is moving, only our diligent pens.

Yet still, I tell myself after squandering another day on useless words, at least I am writing, still trying, still working, still interested, still contributing to the endless stacks of unpublished and unpublishable writing for no other reason than trying makes me happy, or at the very least, less sad. As Billy Collins writes;

I was a single monkey
Trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet,

Often doing nothing more
Than ironing pieces of paper in the platen
Then wrinkling them into balls
To flick into the wicker basket

Still, at least I was making noise,
Adding to the great secretarial din,
That chorus of clacking and bells,
Thousands of desks receding into the past.


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