Rozann Carter explores the spiritual dimension of the poetic philosophy of former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, comparing it to the writing of St. Bonaventure in The Journey of the Mind to God.
From time to time, within the continuous cycle of the typical daily emails that flood my inbox, I receive a random, well-timed gem of an e-mail from a good college friend containing nothing but a single poem written by a man by the name of Billy Collins.
With titles like “Snow Day”, “On Turning Ten,” and “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakely’s version of Three Blind Mice,” my poem-of-the-day emails provide for that lighthearted, epiphany-type recognition that makes a story memorable, a joke funny, and a poem worth memorizing. While a sector of modern poetry prides itself in its elaborate and convoluted strangeness, Billy Collins writes in such a way that his poems refresh and draw the reader in rather than confound and force him to walk through some sort of maze of the subconscious or find a seemingly impossible key to unlock the poem’s meaning. And, upon reading more about Billy Collins and his poetic philosophy, I would conclude that his invigorating style, while undeniably effective upon first reading, reveals a depth and technique that is beautifully reflective of the spiritual life.
Bonaventure, a great saint from the 13th
century, describes a similar depth and technique in his great work, The Journey of the Mind to God, wherein he details the six steps of the soul’s ascent to God. Both Collins’ description of poetry and Bonaventure’s description of the spiritual life are cases of “more than meets the eye,” even when what meets the eye is, itself, deeply compelling. Bonaventure’s journey to peace, like Collin’s approach to teaching poetry, jars the reader out of his/her “matter-of-fact-view of reality.”Forcing the reader to do more than simply read the poem, these two teachers dare her to jump in and become a character.
Mr. Collins, who was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in 2001, offered an interview
to fellow educator Renee H. Shea in a series called “The Teaching Series
,” in which he described his poetic philosophy and mission to draw young people back into an appreciation of poetry. The interview, when read through the eyes of faith, provides a powerful analogy to the spiritual life and the journey to sanctity. Here is a segment of the dialogue.
Renee Shea: [When teaching poetry,] how do we, as teachers, achieve that balance between personal response and critical analysis? I’m afraid we often ask students to respond freely, but then we don’t value that when we ask them to write.
Billy Collins: I don’t have an answer to that exactly, because unless their responses are somewhat guided, they’ll be led into lots of irrelevant areas. If students think, “This is poetry, so anything goes,” then a poem about love invites them to talk about their autobiographical traumas with love. They need to be kept on track within the structure of the poem.
I think there are two ways to do that. One is to try to detect the poem’s organization… Another way that I think is more interesting is to substitute for the question “What does this poem mean?” the question “How does this poem go?”…
A good example would be “Dover Beach,” where you start very simply, “The sea is calm tonight / … the moon lies fair / Upon the straits…” That’s very tranquil, simple language. How does he [Matthew Arnold] get from there to “where ignorant armies clash by night,” this disturbing, apocalyptic vision of struggle and alarm? So you can see that, well, he escalates at this point, he shifts direction here, introduces the element of love here… follow the poet’s shifts of thought and tone; how do we get from the beginning to the end? Once a student can answer questions like that, the so-called meaning of the poem will be revealed.
Collins’ answer to Shea’s question can be almost directly applied to the question, “How do we lead individuals into relationship with God?” As Collins pointed out, unless the individuals’ responses are somewhat “guided,” they will be led to the conclusion that “this is religion/spirituality, so anything goes,” and religion becomes whatever he/she makes it out to be; it becomes primarily autobiographical and self-edifying. As poetry students need to be kept “on track” within the structure of the poem, so individuals should be similarly guided by a structure or means by which they arrive at the deepest truths and purest contemplative relationship with God. Bonaventure describes this in The Journey of the Mind to God. Like students of poetry, “we cannot rise above ourselves unless a superior power raise us.” For Collins, this superior power lies in personal contact with the poet or the teacher of poetry. For Bonaventure, the same is true: “Prayer, then, is the mother and origin of every upward striving of the soul... By so praying, we are given light to discern the steps of the soul’s ascent to God. For we are so created that the material universe itself is a ladder by which we may ascend to God.” Bonaventure goes on to describe the “six graduated powers of the soul, whereby we ascend from the lowest things to the highest things, from the things outside to those that are within, and from the temporal to the eternal. These six powers are the senses, imagination, reason, understanding, intelligence, and the summit of the mind… We have these powers implanted within us by nature, deformed by sin, reformed through grace. They must be cleansed by justice, trained by knowledge, and perfected by wisdom.”
Continual growth in the spiritual life involves an interior conversion, but conversion is only presented as a possibility through an encounter with Christ, who comes to us through the Church. Likewise, though the poetry apprentice is initially moved by the words of the poem, the true meaning and depth is revealed upon the completion of formation in proper appreciation of the art. The structure of the Church, the examples of the Saints, and the possibility for participation in the Sacraments align and realign our reading of the beautiful poetry that exists in our relationship with God. We move from Bonaventure’s “senses” to the “summit of the mind” by means of humble submission to this structure; by observing “where the poem goes” in order to arrive at it’s meaning.
Collins goes on to talk about tone and the poet’s authority:
RS: In an interview…you commented, “The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority.” But tone is so difficult to teach. Any advice?
BC: The only way to teach tone is by recitation. I know it’s old-fashioned—what we used to call elocution…
Collins confirms what Bonaventure and most spiritual masters have taught for centuries: to grasp poetry (i.e. the spiritual life), one must speak it aloud. Over and over, one must pronounce the words. Theorizing, study, research, and all forms of wisdom are worth “straw” if they remain dormant within. They must be lived—recited again and again on the journey to perfection. Bonaventure continually drives this point home in regards to the path toward contemplation: “For just as no one arrives at wisdom except through grace, justice, and knowledge, so it is that no one arrives at contemplation except through penetrating meditation, holy living, and devout prayer.” It is a disciplinary process, a step-by-step journey, a way of life.
Finally, Collins speaks of his most influential poetry instructor.
RS: Can you describe the very best teacher of poetry you ever had?
BC: It wasn’t until I got to graduate school, when I met a professor and poet named Robert Peters, who taught Victorian poetry. He taught it from the poet’s point of view, which means instead of talking about how the poem reflected Victorian attitudes or how it fit into Tennyson’s life, he did close readings of the poem, not even for analysis, but for appreciation of sound… For the first time in a classroom, I was really reading poetry as poetry, not as culture, but as a set of sounds set to rhythm.”
Bonaventure and the tradition of the Faith would closely relate Collins’ description to the communion of saints and their relation to each individual’s spiritual life, the perfection of which is God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Person of Christ, is the “set of sounds set to rhythm”—the spoken word of God in human form whom we seek to emulate and to perpetually contemplate. “For, if an image is an expressed likeness, then when our mind contemplates Christ the Son of God, Who is by nature the image of the invisible God, our humanity so wonderfully exalted, so ineffably united, and when at the same time it sees united the first and the last, the highest and the lowest, the Alpha and the Omega… the book written within and without, it has already reached something that is perfect.” The perfect poem is Christ Incarnate, and ascending to knowledge of Him, we live in this poem that leads to eternal life.
In conclusion, as Bonaventure and Billy Collins demonstrate in an unexpectedly related way, all great poets aim to draw their readers into a deeper reality by way of a beautifully straightforward experience, and God, the ultimate poet, employs this technique at a perfect pitch, aiming to draw his audience directly into Himself by means of the Incarnation. We have only to submit to the form, the recite the words, and emulate the Master. Collins hints at this process, and Bonaventure solidifies the details.
 Popit, Kevin Charles. (Thanks for the introduction to Billy Collins.)
 Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), ix.