Pub. Date:
University of Pittsburgh Press
Questions about Angels

Questions about Angels

by Billy Collins
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822956983
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date: 01/07/1999
Series: Pitt Poetry Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 88
Sales rank: 194,456
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.34(d)

About the Author

Billy Collins, named U.S. Poet Laureate in June 2001 and reappointed to the post in 2002, has published seven collections of poetry, including The Apple That Astonished Paris; Nine Horses; The Art of Drowning; Picnic, Lightning; Questions about Angels; and Sailing Alone Around the Room. A professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, he lives in Somers, New York.


Somers, New York

Date of Birth:

March 22, 1941

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Holy Cross College, 1963; Ph.D. in Romantic poetry, University of California at Riverside, 1971

Table of Contents

1.American Sonnet3
A History of Weather5
First Reader7
Student of Clouds9
Candle Hat11
The Death of Allegory13
Reading Myself to Sleep15
The Norton Anthology of English Literature17
The Hunt19
2.Questions About Angels25
A Wonder of the World27
The First Geniuses31
The Afterlife33
The Dead35
Going Out for Cigarettes37
Field Guide44
Putti in the Night45
The Man in the Moon47
Horseman, Pass By!48
Memento Mori50
The Last Man on Earth51
Come Running52
Modern Peasant53
Instructions to the Artist54
Weighing the Dog56
One Life to Live57
The Wires of the Night58
Vade Mecum61
Not Touching61
Night Sand62
Love in the Sahara63
4.The Life of Riley: A Definitive Biography67
Saturday Morning71
Late Show72
Pie Man74
The History Teacher77
The Discovery of Scat81
The Willies83
On Reading in the Morning Paper That Dreams May Be Only Nonsense85
Rip Van Winkle87
English Country House88


Poetry, Sweet and Cruel

One of the most interesting cultural phenomena that occurred in the waning years of the 20th century was the designation of April as National Poetry Month. I'm not sure why April got the call over the other months, unless it's the month's association with the hope of spring, a traditional sentiment in poetry. It's the first of a sequence of three months after which girls are named. Plus, April is a favorite reference in poetry. If you stretched a wire from the April in the first line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the April in the opening line of T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," you would create a tightrope on which you could walk over the history of English poetry. Come to think of it, an interesting subject for a course in poetry might be the study of how we got from "Aprille with hise shoures soote" (sweet showers, you remember) to "April is the cruelest month." Given the complex diversity of activities eager to fit themselves under the heading of "poetry" these days, it is tempting to simplify the big picture by dividing all poets into two camps: those who see April as sweet and those who see her as cruel. Poets of joy, poets of anxiety. The followers of Horace and Wordsworth, the followers of Kafka and Beckett.

Whether they are sweet or cruel by temperament, all poets are meant to enjoy the focus of National Poetry Month (NPM). This designation began with a declaration by President Clinton in 1995, and the idea of giving poetry its own month was quickly adopted by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. April suddenly became the occasion for a mixed bag of poetry-related activities. In 1998 Andrew Carroll, head of the American Poetry and Literacy (APL) Project, launched the Great APLseed Giveaway, a monthlong drive across America during which he handed out 100,000 books of poetry. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky began the Favorite Poem Project, which recorded more than 1,000 Americans from all walks of life reciting their favorite poems. In April of 1998, the Clintons hosted a "Millennial Evening" devoted to poetry, a fete at the White House with many poetry luminaries in attendance. Other Poetry Month events have expanded to include a frenzy of poetry readings at colleges, libraries, and bookstores, as well as the display of NPM announcements on some 1,800 movie screens controlled by Loews Cineplex Entertainment and the ongoing Poetry in Motion program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. Bookstores report spikes in their poetry sales during the month, reason enough for publishers to assign their poetry books an April pub date. Last year, Volkswagen of America placed 40,000 copies of an anthology called Songs of the Road in all the cars it produced in April. There is even a Young People's Poetry Week (April 16-21) within National Poetry Month! It's enough to make poetry lovers reach for a good long novel.

The Academy of American Poetry explains the purpose of NPM as the effort "to bring together booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools, and poets to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture." Of course, if poetry really did occupy such a vital place, it would not be necessary to reward it with its own month. Television actually does occupy a vital, even central place in American culture, which is why you will never hear of a National Television Month. Nor are you likely to see the appearance of a National Fiction Month, or a National Movies Month. National weeks and months are created to draw attention to the neglected, the under-sponsored, the largely disregarded. National Pork Month. National Secretaries Week. National Cabdriver Courtesy Month. Mother's Day speaks for itself.

Conversely, some people feel that poetry is such an essential element of human life that the idea of a National Poetry Month is as silly as a National God Month or National Oxygen Month. Poet and translator Richard Howard went on record as a vocal detractor of NPM in a talk he gave at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards titled "Poetry: Our Worst-Kept Secret." According to Howard, to designate a special month for poetry is both to commodify and to ghettoize it: If we just read a few poems in April, then we can forget about poetry for the rest of the year. Howard goes so far as to call National Poetry Month "the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine, two inventions that W. H. Auden once declared to be the bane of modernity." Howard's modest proposal (hard to say how ironic he is being here) is that we "restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures." In other words, poetry needs to return to the underground, where it will be sought out by those who truly desire and need it.

The commonplace wisdom that America is experiencing a poetry renaissance is supported by the sharp increase in poetry activities such as conferences, readings, and graduate programs in creative writing. Shouldn't this evidence be enough to silence those who have complained about the low status of poetry in our mass-media culture? Shouldn't we applaud such a revival of the most ancient art? The trouble is that the growing audience for poetry forms a closed circuit: Most of the people who are buying poetry books and attending readings are poets themselves, or people who would like to believe they are poets. It's a sad fact that many of those who attend readings are there primarily for the "open mike." They are not interested in poetry, only in their poetry. It would be like attending a concert where everyone in the audience was carrying a violin and hoping to get onstage at the end of the symphony to play a little tune they've been working on.

National Poetry Month is a benign and well-meaning phenomenon with a distinctly American ring to it. If all the hoopla manages to convert one young person to a lifetime of reading poetry, it's worth it, some might say. Yet there is something appealing about a small audience -- like the audience for jazz, which nicely overlaps the audience for poetry. Would jazz have the same appeal if everyone in the street were whistling "Round Midnight"? Would poetry offer its private pleasures so well if postal employees recited Hardy while they sorted letters? Surely, one month is not enough for poetry. Why only April? What about December? Didn't Yeats write in "On Being Asked for a War Poem" that it is enough for a poet to "please/A young girl in the indolence of her youth,/Or an old man upon a winter's night"?

—Billy Collins

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Questions about Angels 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
jasonli on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A solid collection of poetry from Billy Collins.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago