Most of my favorite poets also teach and I think that teacher's enjoyment of performing for and connecting with strangers communicates to the reader through the page. Of the many hilarious poems about the highs and lows of writing and teaching writing, Billy Collins and Taylor Mali have written many standouts.
Though it's hard to choose a favorite of Collins, here's the one that came out on top today:
by Billy Collins (www.billy-collins.com)
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I'm in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-appointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.
But what I'm not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that's just what it wants to do.
What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging--I like jigging--
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l's.
Maybe it's just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what's an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I'm lost. I need help.
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we're in this big aerodrome
and teh speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that's nice, the coiling hose,
but then I'm not sure where we're supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or it is a kind of indoor cemetery?
There's something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.
But then there's that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we've all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he's describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don't know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that's just the way I read it.
Mali has a teaching-centric collection, What Learning Leaves (with a clever green marbelized composition book cover) that includes the much-cyber-circulated "What Teachers Make." In the interests of sharing a poem you may not already know, "Miracle Workers" is from the collection Icarus Airlines.
Sunday nights I lie awake—
Like a painter paints, or a sculptor sculpts,
What do you think?
If two boys are fighting, I break it up.
A homeless man asked me for change
In the quiet hours of the dawn
I like to lecture on love and speak on responsibility.
Once, I put a pencil on the desk of a student
I just gave you what I knew you needed
When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of taking stacks of work to bed, which didn't enhance my love-life any.
by Victoria C. Rowan
Between the sheets,
lined white-on-white linens
I go to bed with
Never does the pen feel
mightier than the sword
than when it’s red:
flaming through flabby leads
As the night wears on,
the lines can blur,
between what’s on par
with elegant jacquard and
what warrants recycling as pulp.
It can get bloody.
Why wonder why
my own love story
bears such heavy annotation,
questioning word choices,
cross-outs and double-crosses,
Those who take work to bed
do so at their peril—
beware the wretched red stains
that don’t come out.