‘Forgetfulness’ – A poem by Billy Collins, philosophy by Homer Simpson

I have been reading Billy Collins’ poetry recently, and have been struck by how he catches those very human moments that will resonate with many of us in a humorous, ‘hospitable’ (a word he apparently prefers to accessible) but incredibly skilful and beautifully written way. An American poet who has sold over 200,000 copies of his work he can certainly be called ‘popular’, but that is not to lessen any impact he has on our feelings. I think there is something all of us can identify with in his work. Find out more at The Poetry Archive.

I wanted to share the following poem because it expresses feelings many of us will experience. How many books have you adored, dreaded finishing and longed to recommend to friends and then find six months later that you have forgotten the plot, or even the author? Why are bookshops full of humorous titles relating to what we can, or more likely, can’t remember of our school work? And I am also finding that if a thought occurs to me as I lie down to sleep at night, or increasingly as I wake at about 4am, I have to look up an answer, note the idea, or write a list to make sure I don’t wake and find the thought has slipped to that ‘limbo’ region of our minds where frustratingly we remember we had it but have no idea what it was……

It also reminds me (I hope Billy Collins won’t be  offended by the comparison…) of that great philosopher, Homer Simpson, who once said:

How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?

From the collection Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, (Picador, 2000)

Forgetfulness – 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,
not 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.

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2 Responses to ‘Forgetfulness’ – A poem by Billy Collins, philosophy by Homer Simpson

  1. sonofwalt says:

    Oh, I too love this poem. So true. The man is criticized, like William Stafford was, for being too “simple,” too uncomplicated. But the mistake that is made in such criticism is in thinking that “hospitable” or accessible words, common things, cannot be sewn together in such a way as to be very complex and meaningful. He is simply brilliant in his simplicity, and so much of his writing pokes fun at the “difficult” or “serious” poet, even the one within himself.

    I’m glad you are reading BC! I shall have to set up notifications to get your posts. I’ve been away from the blogging world and I am missing much. Thanks for the post and for promoting one of my contemporary favorites. :)

    -David

    • keatsbabe says:

      So glad you like BC too – it is great to find someone who enjoys both 19th century and contemporary poetry, as I do. There is a real value in both and like you I think the essence of great contemporary poetry is to make the small things so meaningful they strike to the heart of things.

      Always enjoy your poetry readings. Get back to the blogging!

      S

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