Billy Collins And All That Jazz: An Essay by J.Doria
You can’t read Billy Collins’ poems without considering their background music, which, like his comic and physically impaired mice, perforates his words and timbre of his poetry, a distant accompaniment, a soundtrack to his verses. The central focus here will be Many Faces of Jazz from Picnic, Lightning with reference to some other works fromQuestions of Angels, The Apple that Astonished Paris and The Art of Drowning.
Billy Collins has said that he likes to be alone with his reader, creating a very personal and intimate link between ourselves and the poet. Reading is a singular act and Collins makes full advantage of this. Not only does ...view middle of the document...
Chords don’t melt into each other like puzzle pieces; they dive and soar and race and pause all over the place like a drunken spider, like confetti in the wind. It free flows. One must confess, it’s challenging and mostly one feels out of one’s depth.
It is precisely this estrangement which Collins manages to express in his poem The Many Faces of Jazz. We take delight in realizing we are not alone in our “pained concentration” and that indeed, we have unwittingly chosen this “new source of agony” whether we like it or not. It is noted that the person with a look of “existential bemusement” cannot be ruffled by this musical flow of improvisation, or marginally impressed, denoted by his “lifted” eyebrows and the casual “oscillating” swizzle stick held nonchalantly in his free hand. One imagines a stern whisky in the other.
We glance over to the uber cool girl in the academic and softly alluring turtle necked sweater, her head a swooning “flower on a stem”, her “lips slightly parted” in a seductive stance, perhaps hoping for the attention of some other like minded jazz enthusiast and we wish we were younger and prettier. For some reason, the other faces are staunchly male. We cannot imagine a man being a “langorous droop” over a ballad as this perhaps mistakenly remains in the realms of female, born out of a terrible and innately sexist prejudice. Our suspicions are confirmed by the possessive article of “her half closed eyes” as she basks under our jealous gaze.
The music distracts us and we turn our heads and see the “fellow at the front table” who has a penchant for “everything but the instrument” which leaves the vocals, we conclude, and if something is not done, he will mount the stage and change the status quo, so great is his passion and need. The “crazy-man-crazy face” individual cares for nothing but percussion, as any percussionist knows. They demand attention and take over the sound. A percussionist who listens is a rare find. This “crazy” owes his raison d’etre to the drum solo. Nothing else matters to him. Even the person who has some buried anger within, “locates the body of cold rage dammed up behind the playing” and loses himself “deeply” almost therapeutically, to it.
Collins then, in the final stanza, manages to draw our attention back to our round metaphoric table in the corner of the bar, back to himself. We are by now wondering what his jazz face is although we are already persuaded that he likes this music. At the same time, we wonder what our jazz face is “and don’t tell me you don’t have one”. He won’t let us off easily. He professes his unwavering adoration of the genre by his “furiously, yet almost imperceptibly nodding” head in “total and absolute agreement.”
Because of our adoration of the poet, we cannot help ourselves but follow his lead. We are charmed by Art Blakey’s haphazard and jarring version of Three Blind Mice as Collins chops parsley in his kitchen and is endearingly affected by “the thought of them...