From Kansas to Oz: The Poetic Excursions of Billy Collins

CollinsYes, you must forgive me for making another plug for the poetry of Billy Collins. But seeing as today marks the one-year anniversary of launching Eden.Babel, I find myself musing, like Bilbo Baggins, on the nature of the journeys we take, a reflection Collins often considers in his work.

For me, Collins’ is the one poetic voice that has resonated most beautifully concerning the process of sojourning; in the pithy breath of a lyrical phrase, he captures the massive undertakings we begin in the simple acts of ordinary mornings: the epic quest of frying an egg, the poetic brilliance of cleaning a windshield. As I mentioned in a previous post on Collins, someone once gorgeously quipped that his poetry “begins in Kansas and ends in Oz.” This is the majesty of Collins’ work, that the reader can begin the poem introduced to the most mundane of settings, yet find himself struck by the lightning of a startling stanza within seconds. For example, I recently purchased his collection Horoscopes for the Dead, flipped to the first poem, and read these lines:


Only Collins can produce this effect. The speaker begins with an utterly casual and unceremonious question (“What do you think of my new glasses?”), moves to an equally casual setting (“I asked as I stood under a shade tree”), then smoothly slides back the curtain to reveal the quiet distress of the grief the speaker bears (“before the joined grave of my parents”). This is the signature movement of Collins, to show his speaker caught between the subtle, almost childlike question for approval – What do you think? – and the bare melancholy of reality. This is the journey from ordinary to extraordinary, mundanity to magic, that makes Collins’ voice a powerhouse for effect and provocative insight. This is the punch of his poetry.

And so, I leave you with the charge to discover Collins for yourself. Brace yourself for the knockout.

The Ameri-Con Man: How Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby define America


“Remember, my friends, listen to me because I pass this way but once.”

From Meredith Wilson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s perennially high-school required read The Great Gatsby spring two of the cleverest and most dapper American heroes to feature in our star-spangled tradition. Yet, the word “hero” is clearly a troubled one in these works, for both Hill and Gatsby (if we may even refer to them as such since both monikers are pseudonyms) complicate the water of conventional heroics. Undoubtedly, they enthrall their audiences, luring us all in with their smoke-and-mirrors masquerade. They are truly dazzling figures, quick-witted charlatans with magnetic appeal and magical, theatrical aplomb. Their uncanny ability to wink-and-nod through life, to deflect the truth with a carefully-timed joke, to blur unpleasant realities with enough lights and music (indeed with seventy-six trombones) to encourage the fantasy of the American dream – even if the supports have been lamed decades ago – stuns us, leaving us with just enough patriotic paralysis to miss the haunting possibility that behind the American camouflage lies a hollow and corroded void.


“They’re such beautiful shirts […] It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

They are American con-men, perhaps the only American identity left for us to believe in, for whether it’s the conductor’s plumed hat or the crisp New York tuxedo, our national heroes may simply be costumes and stage-names, props and scripts. Perhaps they are only, as Daisy painfully sobs, “such beautiful shirts.”

In this post, then, I’d like to introduce a comparison of both Hill and Gatsby as quintessential American figures, earnest and romantic heroes pursuing illusory and counterfeit means of achieving their dreams. They are pied pipers, whistling and parading the nation in an endless and indefinite march toward ever-receding hopes. Yet, they are not cruel, for they are equally caught up in the cavalcade, spirited themselves by the glittering exuberance of the red, white, and blue. In short, they represent the modern American in desperate need of spiritual redemption and salvation from the treadmill of the American dream.

  1. Empty Yesterdays

Much of what motivates both Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby in their construction of false identities and flashy theatrics is a settled fear of the wasted life, a molded leaf-pile of regrets and missed opportunities.

As Hill requests to meet Marian Paroo, the reticent, independent town librarian, at the footbridge for a romantic rendezvous, Marian hesitates, asking to postpone the meeting. Hill’s response reveals his fear of losing time: “Oh, my dear little librarian. You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” Though this romantic gesture may arguably be just an extension of Hill’s crafted persona, I believe this statement embodies Hill’s genuine sentiment, for it arrives at the point in the film where Hill is becoming most vulnerable and most transparent in his affections for Marian. Indeed, he sacrifices his entire industry in falling for her, a choice (or not?) equally true of Gatsby and Daisy.


“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

For Gatsby, this fear of a lost past is summed up powerfully in one of his most famous lines spoken to the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. In his attempt to regain Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, from her husband Tom, Gatsby seeks to go back in time, to undo all of the damage done to their relationship over the last five years. Yet, Nick attempts to halt Gatsby’s efforts, claiming the rationale that one simply cannot repeat the past, to which Gatsby retorts, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Perhaps nowhere else in American letters is the tormented desire to redeem lost time put more conclusively, for Gatsby’s dream is not Daisy, but an echo of Daisy, a vision of Daisy as she once was, and as she fades further away in time with every passing hour, so must Gatsby’s outstretched hand remain suspended in the air. Hers is the green light always at the other end of the bay, and time, it seems, is the sea upon which we “beat on, boats against the current,” yet are always “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

2. Promising Tomorrows


“I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The charm and the enduring glory of these characters must arise from their eternal optimism, the genuine hopefulness that lies at the core of their flair and self-confidence. For Harold Hill this attitude is most poignant in his interactions with young Winthrop, Marian’s withdrawn little brother. At one moment, Winthrop, distressed with the revelation that Hill is a fake, asks him if there’s no band either. Hill’s response encapsulates the American notion of tomorrow, that the dreams we believe in are pure even if the steps taken to reach them are faulty. Hill lovingly says, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This is the distillation of Hill’s entire aim: there is always a noble calling to reach for, some beautiful dream to strive after.

For Gatsby this beautiful dream and his constant expectation of it is described as a gift. Nick says, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life […] it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Both Hill and Gatsby epitomize this “heightened sensitivity”; they are cognizant of the greatness and grandeur of life even if they are simultaneously beleaguered by the flawed approaches they take toward realizing it. In this way, they reveal the depths of the American experience, twisted by the corruptness of sin yet, as Loki declares, “burdened with glorious purpose.”

All is not lost, however. The so-called gorgeousness of these characters does bear a mark of truth and hopefulness, for the hollowness at the root of these heroes may be restored. While Gatsby is drowned by the overwhelming impossibility of his dream, we must remember that Hill is redeemed by the truth; exposed as the sinful man he is, Hill ends the musical disgraced, yet redeemed. As he tells Marian, he cannot go on as a con man since, for the first time in his life, he “got his foot caught in the door.”

May all our American performances, our daily struggle to maintain the sparkling masks of success, self-reliance, and selfishness, likewise get caught in the door so we may learn to accept our failures and live sacrificially, loving one another in truth.

May all our veils be abandoned that we may finally be human again.


Be Thou My Vision: Wordsworth and Seeing into the Life of Things

king-heartsIt is often said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Yet, what must be said of the two-eyed man?

This is the sort of binocular vision afforded to the follower of Christ, the man or woman whose soul has been quickened by the Holy Spirit and, as C.S. Lewis taught us, has been led no longer to look at the sunbeam but to look along it, to track the ray of light, the small coruscation of glory, to the majesty of the sun. Christians have been tasked to navigate this blinded world not with a limping myopia of self-reliance and DIY spirituality but rather with the full vision of God, “For God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6). Through His death, Christ has torn the veil, allowing all the saints a wide-eyed view of the wonder of Almighty God.

Throughout the Word of God, Christians are constantly invited “further up and further in”, a welcoming call to all who would follow Christ to see Him and all He will do:

Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Psalm 66:5)

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)

Even the great hymnist composed the beautiful lines: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face”

The Christian, then, has a distinct blessing of vision; as we look to the heavens, we see declared aloud the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The early 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his famous work “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, effectively demonstrates this sort of Christian vision as he meditates on the sublime beauty of the natural world:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.”

-William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

This is the depth of Christian experience, what Jonathan Edwards would call a “God-entranced vision of all things.” Through the resurrecting power of God, Christians receive new eyes, new life, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. With these new eyes of faith, we perform miracles: we see “into the life of things.” No longer are we waylaid by reductive materialism, the false sturdiness of earthly gain, or thin pleasures masquerading as true joy; rather, we see through them to discover the thickness and robustness of God. Remember, Christ’s resurrection body could pass through walls not because it was ghostly or wispy but, perhaps, because our material world is thin and feathery compared to the rich thickness of God.

And so, we must learn to see into the life of things, to track the sunbeam to the sun, to see the great abundance of the pleasure of God in and through the things He has made. As Doug Wilson suggests, we ought to “turn the soup into stew” and thank God for the freedom to see Him, for “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18).

On Endings and Beginnings

T.S. Eliot once famously wrote, “In my end is my beginning,” a hauntingly lyrical and poignant claim on the glorious chapters of our story, the endless death-and-resurrection pattern of our lives. We move from day to night, spring to winter, orientation to graduation, birth to death…to rebirth.

Yesterday was my last day with my seniors, as they don the cap-and-gown and prepare to graduate into this busy world with the wealth of their dreams and plans excitedly following them like a beautiful comet’s tail or a squeaky red wagon obeying their urgent lead . As such, it seems inevitable to think on endings, both big and small, with a note of sadness, for it is certainly a grief to say goodbye to anything, no less a collection of wide-eyed teenagers ready to grab the world. 

And so, I dug into the recesses of writings past and unearthed an article I wrote ca. 2009 as I prepared to graduate from college. May our endings only ever serve as calls to see beginnings; may we learn, in all of our many evenings, to eagerly await the dawn.

2812548241_53fe9e959d_bThe inescapable truth of life is in its ending. By no means do I wish to sound morose or despondent, but it is the truth nonetheless. Part of the universal human experience is aging, the bittersweet feel of birthday after birthday as we watch that person in the mirror change on us. With every passing moment, we are collectively growing older. Unfortunately, Barrie’s play is fictional, and Neverland will always be just a little farther past our fingertips.

So how do most of us handle this? We discover how simple it is to reduce our life simply to what we tell strangers – “What’s your name?” “Where do you work?” “When do you graduate?” “Are you dating?” Whereas the answers to these numbing questions are important, they cannot become the identities that make up our life. The beauty of life is in the process, the things we embrace to get us from one photo album to another. Anyone can hold on to the big moments – graduation, promotion, championship, engagement – but the gift of life is so much larger. It has to be.

I often laugh at myself for relaying my goals and ambitions to people in the form of a personal bucket list, a seventy-year checklist of dreams. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, what I fail to realize is the extreme importance of those seemingly little moments: that night I couldn’t fall asleep or the time my best friend made me laugh so hard I choked on something. But the best part of these “everyday” moments is the surprise of God. Somehow we expect that God’s presence is at an all-time high during our celebrity moments, the times we feel exceptionally accomplished. We are tempted to believe that He is to thank when we feel great, and He is absent when we do not. But this is wonderfully wrong. Life is a race that we are ever finishing at a pace that is always uncomfortably fast. It’s easy to tell ourselves where we’re running, but the how is where we get caught. God is always willing to guide us through each big moment in our life, but the “everyday” is God’s playground for miracles, His behind-the-scenes workshop.

Of course the trophies, the diplomas, and the diamond rings are enormous moments to be excited about, but we should never lose the music, the midnight drives, and the out-loud prayers. We should never attempt to escape the everyday moments by way of that second star to the right; rather, we should learn to find the adventure in the little things. Of course, the daily process of life can be painful and overwhelming, but even if at times we feel it’s in circles, we should always keep running.