Saturday, October 9, 2010

Billy Collins': The Guest. Puzzling over value

The poem is published in the current review of the London Review of Books. I don't know how much of it I can quote legally: the first verse reads:

I know the reason you placed nine white tulips
in a glass vase with water
here in the room a few days ago
was not in order to mark the passage of time
as a fish would if nailed by the tail
to the wall above the bed of a house guest.

There are another 8 lines.

So what do we know about our speaker and his or her situation. He or she is a guest: knowing he or she is welcome: “I know the reason wasn’t…” The flowers are a reminder that time is passing, but s/he hasn’t yet “made themselves at home”.

So let us assume that there is a relationship where one person feels as though he/she is not really at home and doesn’t really understand why not: she/he notices details, but these details don’t tell the reader anything specific about the relationship or about either the speaker or the person who is being addressed. We learn ‘you’ puts tulips in a vase full of water…hardly strange behaviour: a vase without water or full of beer might be worthy of notice; the host doesn’t nail a fish above the guest’s bed (how strange they don’t do that…) and owns a glass topped table that is by the window of the room. That’s all we know about “you.”

It could be argued that the fact that “I know the reason” which begins the poem and the “was not’ which qualifies it, is separated by four lines creating some kind of tension other than grammatical, perhaps performing the speaker’s doubt? ”I know you’d didn’t do it for this reason” suggests at least the thought that maybe he or she did. Later the same syntactic suspension occurs between “I did notice” and “my suitcase’? So the guest is not sure of his welcome, and he’s just realised he doesn’t feel at home enough to have unpacked the suitcase, but instead has it “by the door” ready for a quick exit?

Because it’s vague, I could come up with things that this is a metaphor for: early stages of a romantic relationship; a marriage, an aging poet addressing the reader, feeling that time is running out and the “suitcase’ (trans; word hoard) is still not totally unlocked……but we’re back with Teenage Cavemen. It’s almost a ready made metaphor you could use for any number of relationship situations without being specifically about anything. Ahaaa, I hear someone cry, this is so obviously a poem about……because white tulips are traditionally a symbol or …and Nine is a ….number and the fact that only two of them are dropping means….

It seems to me an example of a writer “being poetic” without actually offering anything to the reader than what must pass as a “poetic’ poem in some circles. The most arresting image in the whole thing, to which the only rhyme in the poem calls attention, the nailed fish, is not something that is really relevant; it’s something that is not.

Nagging at “content”, “meaning” and “trying to understand the situation” is obviously not the only way to read a poem. It’s usually a fairly limited one. But the writing here forces attention on content not only because it’s so vague (call it allusive if you want to be polite) but because nothing much is happening in terms of poetry. /I/ knows what’s going on. I don’t. And since I don’t care, what I’d like is something in the poem as a poem for me to enjoy.

In such a short piece I’d expect (Would you?) the writer to have chosen each word carefully. In such an old-fashioned first person lyric I’d expect syntax, diction and rhythm to be working together in ways they wouldn’t in prose. Heaney does informal syntax, but his poems at their best are held together with patterned sound and while the impression is a voice speaking to the reader the artifice itself is enjoyable.

But written out as prose The Guest doesn’t lose much.

Lines like “In a glass vase with water/here in this room a few days ago” are not interesting in themselves in terms of diction, syntax, rhythm or sound. Rhythmically the lack of any type of end stopping in the first verse paragraph keeps the eye moving, but it makes line endings redundant. How much difference is there between the printed version and this:

I know the reason why you placed
Nine white tulips
Here in this room a few days ago
Was not in order to mark the passage of time.

If poetry is about making words work then the diction here is consciously informal and uninteresting. The “grey light” of early morning, “the passage of time”, (both in the second stanza), if not clich├ęs are too vague when placed beside “glass top table by the window” Why does it matter where the table is or that its top is made of glass? (On the other hand, the fact the suitcase in the last line of the poem is “by the door’ does seem relevant.)

Why “nine white tulips” (do we need to know there are nine and then two this important?) Or is “white” important. Why “even touching’ and not just ‘touching’? Why is the suitcase “only half unpacked“ and not just “unpacked”?

What does ‘as they lose their grip on themselves” mean in terms of flowers withering? What could it mean? Since the phrase is usually used about people, then are being invited to see the two wilting tulips as the guest and host but what could it mean that they are “losing their grip”? On what? Why?

Someone must have loved this poem; it’s published in the current edition of the London Review of Books. Which must be a prestige market. But for the life of me I can’t see the value of it. If this is "accessible poetry" (Collins sells well in the States. He's been American Poet Laureate.) ) when you push it the meaning isn't accessible at all: it evaporates, leaving nothing.

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