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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Number 29: Billy Collins "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey's Version Of "Three Blind Mice"

I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey's Version Of "Three Blind Mice"

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
If not,
if each came to his or her blindness separately,

how did they ever manage to find one another?
Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse
to locate even one fellow mouse with vision
let alone two other blind ones?

And how, in their tiny darkness,
could they possibly have run after a farmer's wife
or anyone else's wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.

Just so she could cut off their tails
with a carving knife, is the cynic's answer,
but the thought of them without eyes
and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

or slip around the corner of a baseboard
has the cynic who always lounges within me
up off his couch and at the window
trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion
which might account for the wet stinging
in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard's
mournful trumpet on "Blue Moon,"

which happens to be the next cut,
cannot be said to be making matters any better.

-- Billy Collins

Hap Notes: Billy Collins (born 1941) has been called "America's Most Popular Poet," a title which mostly tells you that he sells more poetry than most poets and makes a decent living at it. Have you seen the YouTube video with the three-year-old kid reciting Collins' poem "Litany"? It's charming. And it illustrates a very important thing about Collins' work i.e. it's readable by a variety of age groups and most people have a grip on his work that is about as sophisticated as a three-year-old. I like Collins' poetry but you have to work very hard to see through it.

Yeah, I said it was easy to read, not easy to explicate.

In our example there are major things going on in this poem below the very charming and amusing surface. They're easy to miss because the poem lilts along, telling us this charming random thought process. It's a funny and clever random thought process that comes while chopping parsley (which has its mouse tail similarities-those stems, you see it? So who is really doing the chopping of tails here?) as he's listening to some jazz. Now, if you or I went into a shrink's office and told them this little "mouse tale" (pun intended) was your thought process they would nod, laugh (if they were pretty good shrinks), and start asking you a lot of uncomfortable questions about why you were concerned about fictional mice. It's often called "misplaced affection" and it usually means something else is bothering you.

Did you know, also, that the "mice" in the old English poem are actually a reference to three noblemen who were burnt at the stake by Henry VIII's daughter, Mary I (the "farmers wife")? Did you know that mice have one of the most sensitive olfactory systems in the animal kingdom, in other words, they smell where they are? Mice have very poor eyesight. They detect most things by feel, their whiskers and their sense of smell. When he asks "Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse to locate even one fellow mouse with vision let alone two other blind ones?" the answer is no, it would not. Now tell me what's going on in the poem.

Collins isn't an idiot. Just a general thought process about mice would have you wondering about their other senses. Before he published this poem he could have looked up all this information on the internet about mice- he's a modern guy. So what is the poet upset about? The "cynic" in him who goes to window (a popular place for people to go to hide their emotions-oddly enough) is really unhappy about what? Random cruelty? A failed relationship? The loss of some kind of sight- or maybe the loss of something else?

There's also a whole thread of "chops" and "cuts" in the jazz music, too. Just throwing it out there for you to think about. There are a lot of cuts in this poem, the question is, to whom?

I love the image that the mice have a "tiny darkness" in relationship to their sight in this poem, which, of course, is tiny to us- not them. And darkness is darkness- there's no size to it, is there? So what is the poet's "tiny" darkness? I love the sensory descriptions of the tails in the moist grass. And, yeah, music can make you introspective and sad, too, there is that. Aren't part of the lyrics to Blue Moon "you saw me standing alone?" There's some stuff to think about here and you can't brush it off without making Collins look like a dough-brain which, I'm fairly certain he is not.

Collins was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2001-2003 and he has taught Lehman College in the Bronx for more than 30 years. He's an award winning poet who won Poetry magazine's "Poet of the Year" in 1994. He had a best selling CD of his work "The Best Cigarette." He released the CD under a "Creative Commons" license which allows for free, non-commercial distribution.

Here's a good Collins quote: “I think more people should be reading it but maybe fewer people should be writing it, ... there's an abundance of unreadable poetry out there.”

You can find more Collins here:

1 comment:

  1. You may be overthinking this poem. You have used the term "thought process" at least three times, when just "thought" would suffice.
    Thanks for the historical references.
    I love this poem.