Saturday, July 19, 2008

Billy Collins, "The History Teacher," Catcher, and... a Poetic Debut!

Over a week ago now (sorry, been kinda busy), I went to see Billy Collins read some of his poetry.

For those of you who don't know Billy Collins, get to know him. A former two-time U.S. poet laureate (from 2001 to 2003), Collins is brilliant and creative while at the same time accessible and funny . Here's a sampling of his work:

The Lanyard

Tension

Litany

Don't fret if you're not a fan of poetry: Billy Collins is totally the Non-Fan-of-Poetry's Poet. First of all, as I mentioned above, his poems are funny-- and not "guy-in-a-beret-sipping-mochachino-while-smiling-smugly-at-the artist's-use-of-synecdoche" funny, but actually funny.

His humor contributes to his other cardinal virtue: his accessibility. Now this may sound like a slam-- like I'm calling him simplistic or something-- but I don't mean it that way at all. I mean that all great poetry works on several levels, one which is the purely literal level. And most people, even folks like my dad who know nothing about poetry, could "get" a Collins poem on a purely literal level. More than just "get" it: they can get something out of it.

One of my favorite Collins poems also happened to appear on the 2007 Advanced Placement Literature Exam (but I want credit for including it on my Freshman Final Exam two years before that). The poem also connects nicely to Catcher in the Rye, a topic I haven't quite finished milking the crap out of yet this summer. It's called "The History Teacher," which I will re-print below, with no permission from anyone whatsoever:

The History Teacher - Billy Collins

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more

than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

To me, this is classic Collins. First of all, on a surface level, it's legitimately clever and funny. But if you want to go deeper than that (and I always do), the poem raises important questions about how much we coddle our children. Just think about those communities that don't keep score in youth soccer or little league games-- that way no one goes home with hurt feelings. Like the history teacher in the poem, the parents in those communities want to be Innocence-Protectors.

In that way, Collins' history teacher and those Concerned Little League Parents resemble Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, who likewise wants to preserve the innocence of children. That's what the title means, remember: Holden wants to stand in at the edge of a cliff and catch kids from falling from innocence into experience.

But unlike Collins' history teacher, Holden eventually figures out that his dream job is impossible. You can't keep kids from losing their innocence; you can't erase all the "F--- you"'s from the school stairwells. And even if you could, you probably shouldn't. As Holden says as the end of the novel, as he watches his little sister Phoebe ride the carousel:

"All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. if they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them."

Collins takes this idea one step further in "The History Teacher": you can't prevent kids from losing their innocence, because they're not really that innocent to begin with. Check out these lines: "The children would leave his classroom/for the playground to torment the weak/and the smart,/mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses." Despite the history teacher's attempts to "protect their innocence," these kids are just plain rotten.

Meanwhile, the teacher walks home past the proverbial white picket fences, completely ignorant to the violence on the playground. The way Collins juxtaposes the two, it's almost as if the teacher is the child, living in the naive and innocent world, while the kids are the jaded adults.

Now that's deep stuff. Or you could say I'm looking into it too much and just enjoy the "Chilly Age" and Spanish Inquisition stuff. That's what's great about Billy Collins.

In any case... I was so inspired by Collins' reading in general, and "The History Teacher" in particular, that I actually went out and wrote a poem myself, which I have given myself permission to debut here. It's nowhere near Billy Collins, of course, but hey, I'm a beginner:

Kids Those Days, by Mark Dursin

“Kids these days,” I hear them grumble.
“Plump and lumpy, violent and vacant,
Enslaved to shoot-‘em-up screens.
Brazen, back-talking bullies, all—
Oh, these kids these days.”

Fair point, I guess, but I’d like to know:
What about kids those days—
The ones who ate Sugar Smacks
And fake-smoked candy cigarettes?
They saw “Grease” in the theater, kids those days,
and all its naughty bits.
They waved Han Solo blasters at each other
And played “Kill the Man with the Ball.”
(That’s “kill”: not touch, not tackle,
Not attempt to detain. But kill.)

Don’t kid yourself:
Kids those days, like kids these days, watched too, too much TV.
These and those kids play “Tag”:
They label someone “It”—
The third-person objective pronoun—
Then run away.

They also belly-laugh and snort,
Those kids, these kids, and even yet-to-be kids.
They throw rocks in rivers
and jounce on alligator seesaws.
They find joy in churning Hoodsies into soup.

And they dress up as shepherds and angels in Christmas pageants,
Smiling shyly as they parade past proud parents,
Who’ve received special dispensation, just this once,
To use flash photography in church.

5 comments:

Carolyn said...

I'm actually an English teacher, currently reading The Catcher in the Rye with my Sophomores. We just finished Lord of the Flies which calls into question the natural state of man- quite different from Holden's view. In any event, I thought you might enjoy Sharon Old's poem, "Rites of Passage", if you aren't already familiar with it.

Brendan Aronoff said...

that pom wuz rly fune. i lold. kep up da gud work k? ur so cul. bai.

Eileen said...

I love your poem, Mark! I esp love the details from the past(like those Sugar Smacks!)and how the kids in the past and in the present (and the to-be kids) are linked by our likes and cruelties. It's very fine! I got to your site by kismet and I'm finding it's very fine, too! Always happy to find friends here in the trenches. --Eileen Donovan-Kranz

Heather said...

I like your poem because it makers some really good points, about how it's not just "kids these days," but "kids those days" too. Totally agree. Also, I like the insight into "The History Teacher" since I didn't quite get it for an english assignment, but now I do. Kudos, and thanks!

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