03 April 2014

Poetry Thursday - Forgetfulness by Billy Collins


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted   
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels. Copyright © 1999 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: Poetry (January 1990). (via poetryfoundation.org, where you can hear the poem read)

Collins (b.1941) has been called the most popular poet in America. He had a mother who could, and often did, recite poetry on all sorts of subjects. He co-founded the Mid-Atlantic Review in 1975, and as US Poet Laureate wrote "The Names" in response to the 9/11 attacks, but would not include it in any of his books, so as not to capitalise on the attacks.

The Best Cigarette, a collection of 34 of his poems, recorded in 1997, became a bestseller. In 2005, the CD was re-released under a Creative Commons license, allowing free, non-commercial distribution. Changing publishers (around 1999), he receive an advance of a six-figure sum for three books, shocking the poetry, and literary, "world". He approaches his work with a healthy sense of self-deprecation, calling his poems “domestic” and “middle class.” s.

Hear his TED talk here.

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