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:

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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.

Bilbo Baggins and the Bravery of Willingness

Bilbo BagginsIt is true that we are all characters in the great Story of God, called to our own journeys as we navigate the treacherous waters of a perilous world. It is also true that the dividing line between our actions in these journeys can be as thick as lead, the difference between noble Reepicheep, sailing into the majesty of Aslan’s country, and the self-absorbed Eustace, inching steadily toward the dragon’s den. Some are brave, some are weak.

So a natural question to come would be how we ought to prepare for the journeys we must take. What must I do to prepare for my task? How should I plan my journey? To the well-intentioned Christian, such questions seem righteous. Who doesn’t want to plan and execute an excellent journey for the sake of the Lord? Who doesn’t want to steel himself for the road ahead?

Yet, the answer to these questions is humbling and startling.

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is set up quite comfortably in his cozy life at Bag End. He has a drink, a smoke, and a crackling fire. Out of his window lie the fair hills of the Shire. His breakfasts and second breakfasts are hot and delicious. Yet, it is at this precise stage of his life that Gandalf and a hoard of dwarves descend on his home and change his life forever.

Bilbo was overwhelmingly unprepared, and in one of the most illuminating passages of the book, the narrator claims:

 “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

The start of Bilbo’s incredible journey “there and back again” does not look like a carefully-scheduled trip with dried ink on the itinerary; Bilbo simply “found himself outside”, moving headlong into the mysterious dark ahead. Who are these dwarves? Where are we going, Gandalf? Will the road be dangerous? Will I live to tell about it? Questions flood his mind with no real assurances. Dwalin simply responds, “Don’t worry! You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.”

Unpreparedness, then, is the key note of Bilbo’s beginning, but it is not his readiness that is praised in the novel; it is his willingness. The remarkable quality of Bilbo’s journey is not in how excellently he mapped out his future but how bravely he faced it with a faithful willingness. Bilbo was not ready for his quest, but he was available for it.

If we were completely prepared for the journey we must take, would we be able to learn and see everything the experience could offer? Would our eyes be transfixed by the awe and wonder around us or would we lazily peruse our agendas and timetables for the next bulleted item? I imagine much of the significance and weight of our journey lies in the surprises in store.

So we, like Bilbo, must open ourselves to the bravery of willingness. We must reject the hesitance and fear that accompany so many of the plans we prescribe for ourselves. Bilbo was by no means prepared for his trek, but he was ultimately willing to accept it. He allowed himself to truly experience the situations he went through, concerned more with the nature of his path than the condition of his feet.

In my lifelong struggle to learn to pray, I pray that God turns my eyes away from self-absorption and worry to a noble willingness to see what He would have me to see and to take each experience with both hands, unashamed and unreserved. Such are the people that see the great things of God: the Moses that doesn’t stutter but shouts boldly, the Peter that doesn’t tread water but stands upon it, the Prodigal that returns for a job and finds a home, the Abraham that is called to a land he’s never known, and the Hebrews who must eat the manna of daily provision.

Though we may not ever be prepared for the turns our journey will take, we must be willing to step out into the darkness nonetheless. Just bear in mind we may have to leave our second breakfast half-finished.