Tonight was a evening to celebrate language. The full house in Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus were gathered because they were fans of the poet Billy Collins or the singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, or both. People are drawn to these artists because they respect language and are committed craftsmen. Or in the case of Billy Collins, I love his dry wit and the humor in his poetry. I can relate to poems such as “Forgetfulness”:
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 your brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
First two stanzas from “Forgetfulness” from Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room
I have one album by Aimee Mann. She has a beautiful voice, but her songs are all a little too melancholy for a steady diet. She was joined by a bass guitarist who also sang backup. She introduced him and then I forgot his name and he is not in the program. It made for a nice tryptic on stage.
Aimee Mann and Billy Collins took turns performing and in between they bantered about their experience participating in a workshop for young poets at the White House. It is where they met and where they started what appears to be an on-going discussion of poetry and art.
Are song lyrics poetry? Sometimes they can be, although Aimee admitted that her job is easier because she has the music or melody to help her. Billy only has blank pages.
I bought the tickets for this performance in August. I thought the book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies prompted me to buy the tickets. In my January 11 blog post, I committed to memorizing poetry. Apparently I was already thinking about poetry because I bought these tickets in the summer. Until recently I did not realize it was Billy Collins performing with Aimee Mann. I was all about the poetry. Aimee was a definite bonus.
Billy Collins shared with the students at the White House workshop the importance of form in poetry. It is not enough to express yourself. There needs to be some discipline and structure. Form pushes back at you and does not allow you to get away with everything.
Collins also told the students (and us) a good poet also has to tell a little lie: that you care more about poetry than yourself. Then you can create a poem that intrigues the reader and can serve something other than the author’s ego. Aimee agreed and said her husband (Michael Penn) says, “you have to give a shit.”
Truth for all meaningful work.