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Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime

Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime

by Roger Housden, Rodger Housden

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The fourth volume in the popular series that began with Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime focuses on what it means to be truly human. In it, Roger Housden offers us poems on life and death, happiness, seeing ourselves in relation to the world, and, of course, the ineffable—the things that really matter when the chips are


The fourth volume in the popular series that began with Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime focuses on what it means to be truly human. In it, Roger Housden offers us poems on life and death, happiness, seeing ourselves in relation to the world, and, of course, the ineffable—the things that really matter when the chips are down. He describes these passionate poems as “bread for the soul and fire for the spirit.”

The poets Housden has chosen are Billy Collins, Hayden Carruth, Dorianne Laux, James Wright, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Mary Oliver from the United States, D. H. Lawrence and John Keats from England, Rainer Maria Rilke from Germany, Fleur Adcock from New Zealand, and Seng-Ts’an from sixth-century China. And yes, that adds up to eleven, not ten. Housden decided to include a bonus poem for his faithful readers in this, the final volume of the series. As before, Housden’s luminous essays provide an elegant and easy passage into the sometimes daunting world of poetry, enabling readers to feel that in him they have found a trusted guide and mentor.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Featuring poets from Billy Collins to Rilke to Seng-Ts'an, this is the fourth and final volume in an outstanding series that opens readers to poetry-and themselves. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt


by Billy Collins

Sometimes I see it as a straight line

drawn with a pencil and a ruler

transecting the circle of the world

or as a finger piercing

a smoke ring, casual, inquisitive,

but then the sun will come out

or the phone will ring

and I will cease to wonder

if it is one thing,

a large ball of air and memory,

or many things,

a string of small farming towns,

a dark road winding through them.

Let us say it is a field

I have been hoeing every day,

hoeing and singing,

then going to sleep in one of its furrows,

or now that it is more than half over,

a partially open door,

rain dripping from the eaves.

Like yours, it could be anything,

a nest with one egg,

a hallway that leads to a thousand rooms—

whatever happens to float into view

when I close my eyes

or look out a window

for more than a few minutes,

so that some days I think

it must be everything and nothing at once.

But this morning, sitting up in bed,

wearing my black sweater and my glasses,

the curtains drawn and the windows up,

I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,

and my life is the breeze that blows

through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches—

the surface of the water, the limp sail,

even the heavy, leafy trees along the shore.

Life Is a Breeze

How does he do this? I mean, write about trifles, the little moments of any ordinary day, a wry, half-smile flickering all the way through the poem, and yet at the same time manage to address something wonderful? Something, well, something that brings a deeper breath to your lungs, or that catches you off guard and takes a weight from your heart? Practically any one of his poems can stir something in you before your mind can quite decipher what it is that has affected you so. This, of course, is one of the hallmarks of great poetry. It was Wallace Stevens who once said that "poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully."1

Billy Collins is a recent poet laureate of the United States, and the most widely read poet in America today. The deceptive simplicity of his work, I think, must be one of the reasons for his success, which is far greater than any other American poet since the time of Robert Frost, who was also a "poet of the people." Collins is a poet of the vernacular, of everyday speech and things, yet with a twist. His work seems so simple, so transparently obvious in its everyday concerns, that it would seem to have no interest in resisting anyone's intelligence, not even "almost." Yet it can deliver a side blow that can have you either bent double with laughter, wincing at a truth you may know but not have especially wanted to name—

The name of the author is the first to go

he says, with ironic self-deprecation, in the first line of the poem "Forgetfulness"—or gasping a little for air at the sheer vision he has opened up in a single phrase or a line. And there can be times when he manages, astoundingly, to achieve all these effects at the same time.

This poem, "My Life," winds me effortlessly between its banks like a river from beginning to end, no hard knocks, no rapids, all flow and ease; yet by the time I come out at the other end something has happened; I feel different, and I don't quite know why.

All the images are from the daily round, and since he is describing his life, that may seem natural enough. But would you see your life

. . . as a straight line

drawn with a pencil and a ruler

transecting the circle of the world?

So matter of fact, so deliberate and precise? So . . . geometrical? It is almost as if someone sat down and drew up a life in much the same way as you dissect a triangle. There is something so cleanly dispassionate about this image, and this is just the quality that Collins carries through so much of his work. As if he were floating slightly above the scene he is describing; or as if he were always at a certain distance from himself, noting with a certain humor the foibles and little daily rituals that fill out the texture of his life.

Distance does not necessarily imply a disconnection. On the contrary, it can give a perspective that fosters a kind of warmth, a fondness for what is being observed. And it is distance, too, that can allow us to see the humorous side of things, especially when it comes to ourselves. It was Czeslaw Milosz who said, in his poem "Love" that

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things3

Milosz goes on in the same poem to say that it is distance that allows us to realize we are only one thing among many, and that when we see life that way, our heart is healed of ills we may not even have known we were suffering from.

So here is Billy Collins, inspecting his life, and for a moment he sees it

. . . as a finger piercing

a smoke ring, casual, inquisitive,

It's something of a game, blowing smoke rings, and even more of a game to try and pass your finger through it. Life can seem like that, Collins tells us; and again, whoever would have thought of such an image to describe a life?

Collins always seems to manage to come at the familiar from an odd angle, and the very oddity is awakening, somehow. I feel my life in a new way when taking in this image, even if I can't quite articulate what the newness is. The events, the stuff of life, are as evanescent as smoke, it suggests; and my passage through this hall of mirrors is all curiosity and wondering. Pause for a moment and consider this image for yourself, the feeling or the sensation it arouses in you, the associations it evokes from your own life's journey.

And as if to make his point, the whole image disappears in a ray of sunshine, just as the cards in a magician's hand disappear up his sleeve, and we are back in Collins's day, in which, for a moment, the sun has come out, or the phone has rung. Excuse me for a moment, let this poem look after itself for the foreseeable future, while I answer the phone, or at least contemplate its ringing tone.

Except that, when it comes to poem-making, the telephone is as fair game in Collins's mind as a smoke ring is. Anything, anything at all, is likely to work its way into one of his poems, since anything and everything is equally a part of our living world. This is it, you see, he seems to be saying. Don't think poetry and the poetic image must always come on wings from some other, transcendent world; or from deep deep down in the archeology of our unconscious. No, the visible world of pens and rulers and telephones also comes tinged with an uncommon light, should we wish to see it that way. And Collins does.

So is it one thing, or many things, your life—

a large ball of air and memory,

perhaps? Here he is again, edging the familiar right up to the strange. Well, isn't it strange, to think of your life as a ball of air and memory? Strange, and perhaps disconcerting somehow? When we are very old, perhaps it is only our memories that keep us alive; that, and air—pure, thin air. But then again, his life (and ours, by implication) might equally be

a string of small farming towns,

a dark road winding through them.

How comforting, to think of a life this way, a series of settled communities with established traditions, all tilling the earth and sowing seeds, everything connected, given continuity, by a winding road. That the road is dark we probably take for granted, for who can expect to see where that road leads? Stanley Kunitz, the oldest poet still at work in the Western world, offers a somewhat similar image of warmth and continuity when he describes his own long life in the poem "The Layers." He speaks of the milestones receding in the distance toward the horizon,

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

Collins goes on to add another farming image, comparing his life to a field he has been hoeing, one in whose furrows he curls up to sleep in, which reminds me that we all make a bed of our lives to lie in. That good old farming wisdom, reaping what we sow. So many of Collins's poems let loose a cascade of images, one after the other sailing by, as if to say, if that one doesn't fit, then try this one? And so it is here, where he says of his life,

Like yours, it could be anything,


so that some days I think

it must be everything and nothing at once.

And right there, in those last couple of lines, you might think him whimsical; or, instead, approaching the insight of some old Buddhist sage; or both, all at the same time. Because isn't that what the deepest wisdom is like—

so simple, almost offhand, that it might pass right over your shoulder without you catching even the scent of it?

But let's not stray too far from the concrete and the quotidian: that would never do in a Billy Collins poem. So here we are, finally, this very morning, and Collins is

. . . sitting up in bed,

wearing my black sweater and my glasses,

the curtains drawn and the windows up,

and he paints one last, beautiful picture that manages to bring together all in one scene both the physicality and the ineffability of the life that we live. He returns us to the timeless metaphor of life as breath, as wind—ruach, the Hebrews called it, breath-as-spirit—and it is this that pushes his poem along, and that stirs into life everything that is. This is the genius of Billy Collins, that he can lead us seamlessly from his black sweater and his glasses to the living spirit that moves across the waters and through all things.


by Hayden Carruth

For years it was in sex and I thought

This was the most of it

so brief

a moment

or two of transport out of oneself


in music which lasted longer and filled me

with the exquisite wrenching agony

of the blues

and now it is equally

transitory and obscure as I sit in my broken

chair that cats have shredded

by the stove on a winter night with wind and snow

howling outside and I imagine

the whole world at peace

at peace

and everyone comfortable and warm

the great pain assuaged

a moment

of the most shining and singular gratification.

The Great Pain Assuaged

Surely it is this, even without knowing it, that we all long for deep in our bones: ekstasis, the experience of being lifted out of our bodies, our pains, our sadness, and our cares, then set down, at least for a time, in a life where we are one with the current of all life, where we know that all is already well, and shall always be well. This is a poem of ecstasy, and in it, Hayden Carruth touches the peace that is not of this world, yet he does so at home, sitting in the kitchen by the stove with the wind and the snow outside. In this poem, he marries heaven with earth.

You might suspect that anyone writing a collection of poems with a title like Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, in which this poem, "Ecstasy," appears, is probably someone willing to reach for the sublime in ways that are not always conventional.1 Carruth, a social realist and a political radical, is wary of mysticism, yet his work carries some of the most penetrating insight—spiritual insight—to be found anywhere.

He was born in 1921, and published his first book when he was forty. He was, he has said, a late bloomer. Most poets thrive in their earlier years; Carruth, like his favorite malt, has only improved with age. He is the author of some thirty books, including a novel, four books of criticism, and two anthologies. Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey won the National Book Award in 1996 and Doctor Jazz: Poems, 1996-2000 was published when he was eighty.2

For years, he lived a solitary life in the woods of northern Vermont, mixing with the local farmhands and writing about the poor and disenfranchised. Always the radical, he refused an invitation from the Clintons in 1998 to attend a millennium celebration at the White House on the grounds that Washington only served to foster the interests of those for whom poets and the poor were irrelevant. Later in his life, he took a teaching job at Syracuse, and now, despite the many honors he has received for his poetry, he lives a retirement where the small change matters.

For years it was in sex and I thought

This was the most of it . . .

What was in sex?

a moment

or two of transport out of oneself

That is to say, the temporary loss of self-consciousness that sex can offer. The brief, all too brief, release from the straitjacket of our hyperactive self-referencing, the internal monitor that keeps us forever at a certain distance, separate from life in all of its aspects. Separate from each other, from nature, from the food we eat, even, and perhaps especially, separate from ourselves.

And yet self-consciousness is no bad thing; rather, we might call it a blessing-curse. You wouldn't even have your own name without it. It is a prerequisite for the birth of individual identity, and it has thrived only in eras—in ancient Greece, among the Jews after the Diaspora, in the Italian Renaissance, and in the last four hundred years, especially in England and America—when individually was valued and recognized.3 When the tribe or the family was the chief source of identity, the individual bore the name of his father, or was referred to as "daughter of." It was inconceivable in those times that a son would ever do anything different in the world from what his father had done. People lived in a collective rather than a personal identity.

In this light, self-consciousness is something we can be thankful for. And as it happens, Hayden Carruth's ecstasy requires no damping down of individuality or a regression to a collective state of consciousness.4 Rather, ecstasy raises the individual to a more whole and integrated awareness, one that includes not only yourself but also others and the rest of life in general. You return from ecstatic rapture knowing you are part of a greater life, a conscious flicker in the vast network of intelligence that joins both the stars and the ants and you.

Meet the Author

Roger Housden, a native of Bath, England, emigrated to the United States in 1998 and now lives in New York City. He is the author of Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Ten Poems to Open Your Heart, and Ten Poems to Set You Free, and editor of Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation. You can e-mail him at tenpoems@juno.com.

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