Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Word to Your Mother

I've never been one of those people who equates song lyrics with poetry. I don't mean that as a value judgement; it's not as if I consider songs to be intrinsically less important than poems, it's just that I think their aims and concerns are different.

I think a song works alongside music and those mysterious notes that are proven to evoke certain emotions in the listener. A song is meant to be heard aloud (yes, I hear you poetry students: a poem is meant to be heard aloud as well. But how often does that really happen? There are no radio stations for poetry) whereas a poem is most often heard in the mind's ear. And because it is heard aloud, it can rely on the vocalist's tone and inflection in a different way than a poem can.

Though, still, I guess it's all a means of communication, the constant struggle to deliver meaning with imperfect words. And then, too, in poetry, one of the things I love best is to hear the language played with, manipulated: people taking pleasure in the sounds of words.

This is why I love rap. That always strikes me a slightly hilarious, that I find rap so much closer to poetry than anything else. But there is something about a really wonderfully crafted series of words (particularly when it's off color, but that may be just something about my taste) that can force a delighted giggle out of me.

I've been reading Billy Collins while I do my algebra. I often tell my students, as I bumble through my explanations of x and y, that specialization is fine and normal and that I specialized in words, but that they may specialize in math and that neither is more important than the other (although I secretly think that they are both pretty worthless as far as daily life is concerned for the majority of the population. It's not like anyone ever comes up to you on the street and demands to know the slope of the line or what the direct object is).

But I do vastly prefer my words. And Billy Collins is the God of Words, soothing my burning, math-laden brain.

Thesaurus by Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings and digs
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirisute, woolly, furry, fleecy and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes;
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronouncable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their nametags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.


velocibadgergirl said...

I LOVE Billy Collins, but you know that :D

Amanda said...

i think i've seen that one before, but i'd forgotten about it. thank you for reminding me. it is gorgeous.

ashley said...

Billy Collins ROCKS! I met him when I was in undergrad, and told him about the first time I read one of his poems (still one of my favorites) "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" and that I was supposed to be doing research and used the last of my change to make copies of it. He was so lovely.

If you want to enjoy a little Billy Collins "poem radio", I recommend The Best Cigarette, which is a recording of him reading his work.

Megs said...

Ashley, I am jealous beyond words. And I shall surely check out The Best Cigarette.