I recently read with great interest “The Ride of Poetry: Collins on Metaphor and Movement,” by Billy Collins (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave (New York: Pearson, 2003), pp. 66-69). In this essay (a brief afterword to a selection of his poems), Collins discusses his desire for poems to present him an opportunity for “imaginative travel,” to transport him “into new territory.”
Though Collins does not specifically mention the turn in this essay, it’s clear that the turn is implied. Turns simply are the ways that poems travel. Collins states, “In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.” And this sounds a great deal like Randall Jarrell, who states (in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” a lecture focused on issues related to the turn), “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”
Additionally, Collins simply seems to be a fan of the turn. He employs the turn again and again in his own work. (Many poems by Collins appear on this blog’s pages devoted to specific kinds of turns, including “Duck/Rabbit” and “Marginalia.”) And, as an anthologist, Collins tends to select works that feature prominent turns–I don’t think it’s coincidental that the subtitle to Collins’s influential Poetry 180 is “A Turning Back to Poetry.”
Collins’s “The Ride of Poetry” simply further confirms Collins’s interest in, and deep and abiding engagement with, the turn. Here are some selections from this essay:
“Of the many pleasures that poetry offers, one of the keenest for me is the possibility of imaginative travel, a sudden slip down the rabbit hole. No other form can spirit the reader away to a new conceptual zone so quickly, often in the mere handful of lines that a lyric poem takes to express itself. Whenever I begin to read a new poem, I feel packed and ready to go, eager to be lifted into new territory….
“If we view poetry as an affordable–cheap, really–means of transportation, we can see the development of a poem as a series of phases in the journey, each of which has a distinct function. The opening of the poem is the point of departure; the interior of the poem is the ground that will be simultaneously invented and covered through a series of navigational maneuvers; and the ending of the poem is the unforeseen destination–international arrivals, if you will….I am hardly alone in saying that the poem can act as an imaginative vehicle, a form of transportation to a place unknown. But I expect my company would thin out if I admitted that I usually fail to experience the deeper, more widely celebrated rewards of poetry, such as spiritual nourishment and empathetic identification, unless the poem has provided me with some kind of ride….
“I do not mean to suggest that poetry is a verbal amusement park (or do I?) but I do hold up as a standard for assessing a poem its ability to carry me to a place that is dramatically different from the place I was when I began to read it.
“To view a poem as a trip means taking into account the methods that give a poem vehicular capability. It means looking into the way a poet manages to become the poem’s first driver and thus first to know its secret destination.
“In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega. Obviously, the question does not apply to the many poems that exhaust themselves crawling in the general direction of beta….”