Billy Collins’ “Three Wishes”

Usually after I’ve chosen a poem I want to talk about I search the net for a copy of that poem, hoping I won’t have to type it out from scratch or worry whether I’m giving readers one more reason not to buy a book because they can find the poems online.

I’m surprised how often I find poems online and am often delighted when I can also gain new insights into the poem. Today when I searched for a copy of Collins’ “The Three Wishes” I found not only a copy of the poem but an interesting interview with him.

THE THREE WISHES

Because he has been hungry for days,
the woodsman wishes for a skillet of hot sausages.
And because she is infuriated at his stupidity,
his lack of vision, shall we say,

his wife wishes the skillet would stick to his nose.
And so the last wish must also be squandered
by asking the genie to please
remove the heavy iron pan from the poor man’s face.

Hovering in the smoke that wafts up
from his exotic green bottle,
the genie knew all along the couple
would never escape their miserable lot,

the cheerless hovel, the thin dog in the corner,
cold skillet on a cold stove,
and we knew this too, looking down from
the cloud of a sofa into the world of a book.

The man is a fool, it is easily said.
He could have wished for a million gold coins,
as his wife will remind him hourly
for the rest of their rueful lives,

or a million golden skillets
if he had a little imaginative flair,
and that is the cinder of truth
the story wishes to place in one of our shoes.

Nothing can come from nothing,
I nod with the rest of the congregation.
Three wishes is three wishes too many,
I mutter piously as I look up from the story.

But every time I think of it
all I ever really feel, besides a quiver
of sympathy for the poor woodsman,
is a gnawing hunger for sausages –

a sudden longing for a winter night,
a light snow falling outside,
my ax leaning by the door,
my devoted heavyset wife at the stove,

and a skillet of sizzling sausages,
maybe some green peppers and onions,
and for my seventh and final wish,
a decent bottle of Italian — no, wait, make that Chilean red.

Like most people I’ve heard or read this folk tale many a time and will have to admit that most of the time I haven’t gone beyond the “cinder of truth” Collins refers to. In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the woodsman, fisherman, etc. as “foolish.” Anyone who can’t make better wishes than me must be foolish. Right?

And, yes, being a man it’s hard not to sympathize with the woodsman whose “wife will remind him hourly/ for the rest of their rueful lives.” Does anyone really imagine that even if the woodsman had wished for a million gold coins that he wouldn’t still have to endure his wife’s complaints?

What’s more, I’ve gotten up on more than one cold Sunday morning with a sudden longing for link sausage fresh out of the skilled rather than Eggs Benedict, Dutch Baby Pancake, or even Huevos Ranchero. You don’t have to be a hardy woodsman to work up a hardy appetite, after all, or there would be a lot less Denny’s serving breakfast every morning.

Maybe in the end simple wishes simply met are better wishes than fanciful dreams of immense wealth that come at a far greater cost than most of us can ever imagine.

Certainly much of Billy Collins’ appeal as a poet is his uncommon, ordinary sense. He makes us see our everyday world more clearly than we would otherwise see it. As he suggests in the above-mentioned interview, he hopes to make us appreciate ever day a little more than we would without his poetry. That’s not a bad dream, but neither is it one that is likely to change the world.

Doing Nothing Can be Fun

What did you over the holiday weekend?

Nothing.

I didn’t read any poetry, I didn’t take any bird pictures, and I didn’t do any long walks.

I didn’t do anything I usually do.

What I did do was spend time deleting hundreds of emails as the result of some low-life spammer using my email address as the return address on his spam, helped cleaned the house, spent a delightful Thanksgiving with Dawn and her family, started making Christmas cookies with the same, wrote out a hundred dollar check to the local food bank, started looking for a family to “adopt” for Christmas, did the weekly shopping, watched the Huskies win a very lopsided basketball game, went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, watched the Seahawks win a squeaker, went on several short walks, and, most time-consuming of all, studied 183 pages in How to Wow: Photoshop for Photography

When I realize how “busy” I was on thse four days “off,” I’m amazed I find any time to read poetry and embarrassed by how few poetry books I’ve managed to read since summer, not to mention how few poems I’ve written.

Luckily, I like How to Wow, a lot and continue to read and complete the accompanying exercises, since merely reading about Photoshop is ineffective for me. I learned how to create timesaving droplets to process photos for my web page so that I had more time to devote to How to Wow.

My favorite, though, was learning how to isolate and adjust particular colors by using Hue/Saturation and choosing particular colors from the drop-down menu. In the future, in one easy step I’ll be able to eliminate weird green colors in the water

, even if they are in the original negative.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, it appears that some of the best ideas appear in the final chapters, and it will take awhile to get through the final 100 pages. That probably means I’ll be doing a little less poetry for awhile, though I plan on finishing Billy Collins’ books by tomorrow at the latest.

Billy Collins’ “First Reader”

Personally, I find it difficult to decide exactly how I feel about Billy Collins’ poetry, though the quote on the cover of Sailing Alone Around the Room that “It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment” seems spot on.

It’s impossible not to “like” much of what is written here – I marked seven poems that I “liked” in the first 83 pages, selections from poems written between 1988 and 1995. That’s a respectable number of poems, but when I thought back on them I couldn’t remember what a single one of them was about.

Perhaps too many merely remind me of things I already knew, but have unfortunately managed to forget. There’s little here that reaches out and really grabs me, but I’d much rather read these than read the morning paper or watch TV, and I’m sure I’d be a better person for reading his book and foregoing the others.

Forced to pick a favorite in the first half of the book, this would be it:

FIRST READER

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustrations of their neighborhood,
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting,
“Look!” pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet’s small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Part of what appealed to me in this poem wouldn’t appeal to anyone too young to have been exposed to the Dick and Jane books as their first reader. The opening paragraph brought back a rush of pleasant memories, though I wondered why Spot wasn’t here.

And, yes, most of the other characters are ones who introduced me to a world I might never have known without reading. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that I was giving up the ability to experience something more directly when I spent time exploring these literary worlds.

Worse yet, one begins to suspect that what we see is often determined by what we expect to see, and too often that expectation comes from reading rather than from our own experience.

Of course, this idea is not a new one, but it is one that we all too easily forget when we get caught up in reading books. Collins’ poems are often reminders like this, and sometimes its nice to be reminded of important things that have gotten lost in our hectic daily lives.

Kizer’s Translations

I’ve finally managed to finish all 500 pages of Carolyn Kizer’s Calm, Cool, & Collected. No doubt about it, the older I get the harder it is to read a 500 page book of poetry, no matter how good the poet is, or isn’t. Reading something that long seems too much like taking a college course, and there’s too many things I want to do in my life to be taking more college literature courses. I guess that means I’ll be focusing on shorter works than Alan Dugan’s last collection of Poems for awhile, that I’ll put off reading Berryman’s book even longer, and that I’ll be focusing on shorter works of poetry I already have waiting on the shelf.

Of course, if I were really being thorough, I’d go back and re-read several of Kizer’s best poems, or the whole volume, in light of her whole body of work and read what other literary critics have to say about her. Luckily, though, that is not what I do. I’ve gained new perspectives and new insights from reading her poems, and that’s all I want from a book of poems.

Though fascinated by Kizer’s “Pakistan Journal” written in 1969, by far my favorite translations were those of Chinese masters, particularly Tu Fu’s poems. Reading this section, though I came to realize just how different the worlds are that Kizer and I have lived in. In the introduction she notes that her mother was reading her Arthur Waley’s Chinese translations when she was eight, and Kizer interrupted her college work at Columbia University to go to China, where her father was “administering United Nations relief.? I’m not a big believer in using autobiographical details to interpret poems, but I suspect that I might see much of what she’s written differently after reading these biographical details.

Though I liked several of Tu Fu’s poems, I guess I like this one as well as any of the others:

SPRING GOES

Petal by petal, the Spring dissolves.
A small wind carries the rest away.
All nature conspires to sadden me.
But gross, unrepentant, I will be gay.

I devour the flowers that yet remain.
I shall not stint myself on wine.
A cock, red-throated, a green-winged hen:
The kingfishers nest in the ruined vine.

The River Pavilion lists in decay.
Beyond these boundaries I see
A grave stone unicorn, adamant;
He leans on a tomb, stares far away.

You natural laws! I take your measure;
Forgetting rank, work, weary days.
I find my nature made for pleasure,
And drink and linger, at ease.

Perhaps the poem sounds like little more than a traditional carpé diem poem, but it’s not the kind of poem you’d expect from an English or American poet, unless it’s Walt Whitman. Considering my recent photographic series, perhaps I was merely hooked by the reference to the kingfisher’s nest.

As I get older, though, I can certainly identify with Tu Fu’s sadness and his attempts to remain happy despite the fact that many of the things he loves most are fading away.

Despite my sarcastic outbursts, I’d like to be remembered as one who lived life as fully as possible and refused to give in to weary days, hopefully without having to resort to copious amounts of wine.