Monday, January 28, 2013

For the Anniversary of My Death - W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

What a bizarre thought, knowing that every year, without fail, we all pass the day on which we will someday die.  The thing that struck me most about this poem as I read it was the lack of punctuation.  It almost seems rushed, hurried, as if we are all thoughtlessly passing out death days.  Life as a cloak we all wear is an interesting image.  What are we, if not cloaked in being alive?  It's the most fundamental shared experience.  Is it so remarkable that it merits that image?  What essence have we outside of life?

I think I'm so disarmed by the core image and thought of this poem that I'm unable to focus on any of the raw poetic merits at work.  The language is very nice, and the images potent, but compared to the certain knowledge that my death-date has passed 22 times now, it's insignificant.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

[The Props assist the House] - Emily Dickinson

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House supports itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter-
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life-
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness - then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.

Nothing to say, just enjoy the Dickinson.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

First Lesson - Phillip Booth

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will gold you.  Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls.  A dead-
man's float is face down.  You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea.  Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

I'm no one's daughter, nor a father, but as someone's child, this poem is wonderfully reassuring.  It's that warm feeling you associate with home and the love that lies within.  I hope that someday, I can be that reassuring, warm feeling in the deepest places of any future child of mine's heart.  A touching reminder to treat life like a stream, and when you are too tired to swim and thrash anymore, simply float, look to the wondrous skies, and remember that life goes on, and you will be safe.  You are loved.  Simply wonderful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Light Left On - May Sarton

In the evening we came back
Into our yellow room,
For a moment taken aback
To find the light left on,
Falling on silent flowers,
Table, book, empty chair
While we had gone elsewhere,
Had been away for hours.

When we came home together
We found the inside weather.
All of our love unended
The quiet life we demanded,
And we gave, in a look
At yellow walls and open book.
The deepest world we share
And do not talk about
but have to have, was there,
And by that light found out.

It's interesting to think of a room as having its own climate.  The things we keep around us are in some ways indicative of who we are, as this poem reflects upon.  A light left on by accident invited inspection into the love that dwelt in the home.  A "deep world" that exists outside of words, but in feelings, perhaps a feeling of light and lightness, as indicated by the light imagery of the poem.  I suppose my room, a light left on, reveals clutter.  That's not an unfair allegation to level against me as a person.  My thoughts are often cluttered, I've long tried to do too many things, and to move in too many directions.  Looking at my messy room does reflect that, all right.

The image of an open book is a reassuring one.  We are free to write the stories of our own lives, or at least we have that illusion.  Casting light on that open book invites introspection, which is what, as evidenced above, this poem has done for me.  The unusual syntax and occasional rhymes of this poem please my ear, and I think this is a lovely poem for reading out loud.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Requiescat - Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life's buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Touching, direct, unvarnished emotion.  There's something to be said for such direct expression as this.  Sentimental without being sappy, sad without being depressing, it captures the beauty of whatever young woman is presumably now dead.  Her faded beauty is made more distressing by the state of her current decomposition.  Most of all, I'm struck by the strength of the loss.  Direct emotion is very hard to capture successfully, but when it works, it's wonderful and sticks with you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Once in the 40s - William Stafford

We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana.  This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars.  We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on.  Tired and cold - but
brave - we trudged along.  This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted.  We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich.  We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.

Time and time again, over hundreds of years, poets, among others, have reminded us, that money can never buy the happiness and freedom felt in those moments in which we live in the moment.  That starry night in Montana that Stafford recalls is captivating.  A sky full of stars, young, poor lovers, by themselves.  It's a wonderfully romantic image, and in life, it's the kind of moment where time stops, and you feel that presence of higher power.  "Watched over" as Stafford puts it.

Those moments are the stars in our own night sky.  Brilliant points of light by which we can mark and chart our lives, hoping to run into more of those moments.  Besides being somewhat sad by implying that we lose sight of those things with the acquisition of wealth and worldly possessions, this poem strikes me for being wonderfully captivating.  It grabs my imagination with the idea of a clear, cool night, with a lover by my side. What else do you need?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hoeing - John Updike

I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
     of the pleasures of hoeing;
     there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
     moist-dark loam-
     the pea-root's home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.

How neatly the green weeds go under!
     The blade chops the earth new.
     Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.

Updike hits upon what is a problem for my generation;  we have been shamed away from manual labor.  Our parents, and our grandparents, with the best of intentions, wanted better lives for us, so that we would not have to toil in fields or factories, breaking our backs for a meager pay and harsh life.  However, today there is a shortage of skilled laborers.  The virtue of hard sweat and labor is being forgotten, and many people my age think that manual labor is beneath them.

I am glad that I did yardwork growing up.  It's not hoeing, but it's not nothing, and I think I understand some of what Updike means when he calls that manual labor of hoeing a "simple, stupid, and useful wonder."  Physical work is constructive, but apart from that, it is a great time for reflection.  It cultivates calm just as much as it may cultivate crops.  It feels good to sit down, wipe the sweat off of your dirty body, and rest for a while, knowing that your efforts have accomplished something.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Walking the Dog - Howard Nemerov

Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.
Mostly I look at lamplight through the leaves
While he mooches along with tail up and snout down,
Getting a secret knowledge through the nose
Almost entirely hidden from my sight.

We stand while he's enraptured by a bush
Till I can't stand our standing any more
And haul him off; for our relationship
Is patience balancing to this side tug
And that side drag; a pair of symbionts
Contented not to think each other's thoughts.

What else we have in common's what he taught,
Our interest in shit.  We know its every state
From steaming fresh through stink to nature's way
Of sluicing it to dust that blows away.
We move along the street inspecting it.

His sense of it is keener far than mine,
And only when he finds the place precise
He signifies by sniffing urgently
And circles thrice about, and squats, and shits,
Whereon we both with dignity walk home
And just to show who's master I write the poem.

I laughed aloud at the last line of this poem, and I hope you did too.  For anyone who has ever owned a dog, I'm sure this will bring many memories, hopefully fond, of walks with one's dog.  For me, I'm suddenly flooded with fond memories of Clark, my late beloved black lab.  The funny way that dogs take walks, sniffing everything, shit included, and by some byzantine and foreign process, deciding where to drop their own information rich load of shit.

I'm also somewhat enamored with the way this poem treats shit.  It's mundane.  Shit is everywhere.  You shit, I shit, and reading it in a poem, the word shit almost seems taboo, or naughty and verboten.  It's good to see someone figuratively throw shit around.  Refreshing, even.  As Nemerov reminds us, our shit philosophy is superior to the dog shit philosophy because we write poems about it.  That's funny shit, right there.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Pupil - Donald Justice

Picture me,the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practicing for
That moment on the threshold.
                                               Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

This poem, more than any other I  have read, captures the anxiety and magic of being a young student of music.  Nothing more dreaded than the exercise book (here Czerny, for me, the brass player, Arban), nothing more stressful than playing a piece for review, nothing more magical than the music of the masters.  "Stupid and wild" is a good way to describe most music students.  I hope that I can remember that same enthusiasm, and to instill it into my own students.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lending Out Books - Hal Sirowitz

You're always giving, my therapist said.
You have to learn how to take.  Whenever
you meet a woman, the first thing you do
is lend her your books.  You think she'll
have to see you again in order to return them.
But what happens is, she doesn't have the time
to read them, & she's afraid if she sees you again
you'll expect her to talk about them, & will
want to lend her even more.  So she
cancels the date.  You end up losing
a lot of books.  You should borrow hers.

I had a good laugh at the last line of the poem.  A therapist, talking in an apparent shorthand (all the "&" seems to present the poem as a handwritten note of sorts) suggests that the problem in your relationships is that you are too giving.  So why not take?  As if a different result would occur, other than you keeping her books and cancelling the date.

Sirowitz highlights the absurdity of the way we try to relate to one another.  Here, have a book!  I can't wait to talk to you about it!  Funny.  I think I'll hold on to my books, thank you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Portrait - Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

I wonder if there is any event from my youth that I will remember so vividly as this in my advanced years.  Still feeling the sting, not just of his father's absence, but of his mother's heartbroken rage, over six decades later, is really remarkable.

I like how Kunitz also paints a portrait of his father, both by describing his appearance, and describing the void he left in two lives.  It's almost as if we feel the slap and sting.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sometimes - Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

The earnest final line of the poem, a sincere wish that you, the reader, have success, is very disarming and touching.  The poem as a whole is a lovely reminder that sometimes indeed, the world is not so bad.  For as awful as things seem, as corrupt as our politicians, as bleak as prospects for peace in the world, as beleaguered as our environment becomes, sometimes, just sometimes, things go well.  Wishing that goodness on another is noble and wonderful, and something we could all use more of.

It is worth noting, though, that usually, things don't go.  Often, the frost kills the crop, we succumb to our faults, we struggle to improve and fail.  People rarely step back from war, we ignore the poor at a rate that should make us all ashamed.  Still, sometimes, you know?  Small hopes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ode to the Medieval Poets - W. H. Auden

Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
     without anaesthetics or plumbing,
     in daily peril from witches, warlocks,

lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,
     with no grimaces or self-pathos?
     Long-winded you could be but not vulgar,

bawdy but not grubby, your raucous flytings
sheer high-spirited fun, whereas our makers,
     beset by every creature comfort,
     immune, they believe, to all superstitions,

even at their best are so often morose or
kinky, petrified by their gorgon egos.
     We all ask, but I doubt if anyone
     can really say why all age-groups should find our

Age quite so repulsive.  Without its heartless
engines, though, you could not tenant my book-shelves,
     on hand to delect my ear and chuckle
     my sad flesh:  I would gladly just now be

turning out verses to applaud a thundery
jovial June when the judas-tree is in blossom,
     but am forbidden by the knowledge
     that you would have wrought them so much better.

I often find myself sharing Auden's surface sentiment here; Why practice art or create when it has been done and done better?  While asking that and praising the great talents of those megalithic figures of past creative spirit, Auden writes a clever poem, which, at its end, imitates that very thing he feels he cannot write.

The alliteration at the end of the last stanza (jovial June, judas-tree) hearkens to the wondrous sound of medieval poetry, with its wordplays and fun sounds.

Normally, I find poems lamenting the current "age" to be trifling and stupid, but Auden seems to know better than to assume that he lives at the nadir of human creativity.  Rather than lambasting his own time completely, as Blake does (, Auden instead marvels at the great works of the past, while still creating a compelling poem of his own.  That's a good balance, if you ask me.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Sailor - Geof Hewitt

In my movie the boat goes under
And he alone survives the night in the cold ocean,
Swimming he hopes in a shoreward direction.
Daylight and he's still afloat, pawing the water
And doesn't yet know he's only fifty feet from shore.
He goes under for what will be the last time
But only a few feet down scrapes the bottom.
He's suddenly a changed man and half hops, half swims
The remaining distance, hauls himself waterlogged
Partway up the beach before collapsing into sleep.
As he dreams the tide comes in
And rolls him back to sea.

Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  A heartbreaking account of a struggle for life, the part of this poem I find the most vexing and curious is the first line.  "In my movie" it starts.  Is the poet a screenwriter, talking about the heartbreaking ending he has planned for the unwitting protagonist?  Or is he talking about his own personal experience.  As in, "in the movie of my life" I struggled, faltered, and right as success seemed certain, I fell tragically.  It could always be both, of course, but it's interesting to think about those two presentations.

This poem is a good reminder of how gripping and exciting a poem can be.  It reads almost like a script, fittingly, and really pushes forward.  Short, terse statements add to frenzied pace, and we feel the struggle of the sailor.  The word placement for "hauls himself waterlogged partway up the beach" really feels like an effort, versus "he hauled himself up the beach, waterlogged."  We really feel the weight of the sailor in the words and order there.  The tragic ending is delivering in a short, almost sing-song rhythm couplet, emphasizing the quiet rhythm of the tide that steals the sailor away from life.  What an effect!

Friday, January 11, 2013

[since feeling is first] - e.e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

cummings always out of syntactical but order who cares poetry when words beautiful flowing riverfree
to outloud speak delight always sometimes hard to tell punctuation; where you put it or not


dich-inbetween-otomy for words that can't

but anyways is always wonderful, out past order is for abandoned reasons


Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Fantastic Names of Jazz - Hayden Carruth

Zoot Sims, Joshua Redman,
Billie Holiday, Pete Fountain,
Fate Marable, Ivie Anderson,
Meade Lux Lewis, Mezz Mezzrow,
Manzie Johnson, Marcus Roberts,
Omer Simeon, Miff Mole, Sister
Rosetta Tharpe, Freddie Slack,
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Teagarden,
Max Roach, Paul Celestin, Muggsy
Spanier, Boomie Richman, Panama
Francis, Abdullah Ibrahim, Piano
Red, Champion Jack Dupree,
Cow Cow Davenport, Shirley Horn,
Cedar Walton, Sweets Edison,
Jaki Byard, John Heard, Joy Harjo,
Pinetop Smith, Tricky Sam
Nanton, Major Holley, Stuff Smith,
Bix Biederbecke, Bunny Berigan,
Mr. Cleanhead Vinson, Ruby Braff,
Cootie Williams, Cab Calloway,
Lockjaw Davis, Chippie Hill,
And of course Jelly Roll Morton.

Found poetry is always fun, and in this case, with the colorful names of jazz singers as material, Hayden Carruth does a wonderful job making a crunchy, fun sounding poem.

Please, if you want to have some fun, read this aloud.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poem to Be Read at 3 A.M. - Donald Justice

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 A.M.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on

Poems about a small connection between two people in the void have always resonated well with me.  Headlights on the highway passing a solitary room light on.  The smallest possible acknowledgment of another person invites imagination, and in this case, poetry.  It's like when you catch a stranger's eye in public, but as soon as you saw one another, you continue onwards about your business, with barely a passing thought.

I wonder if whoever inspired Donald Justice to write this poem ever ended up reading it.  It doesn't much matter if it doesn't, but it would certainly cause the poem to come full circle.

Of note in this poem is the light imagery, with its stark contrasts between the shadows of the night and the light of a room being passed by headlights.  A very vivid picture of two dots of light crossing in the night materializes in my head with this poem, and it's somehow very reassuring, knowing that even in the dead of night, somewhere, someone else is out there, and we are not, in fact, alone.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Alley Violinist - Robert Lax

if you were an alley violinist

and they threw you money
from three windows

and the first note contained
a nickel and said:
when you play, we dance and
sing, signed
a very poor family

and the second one contained
a dime and said:
i like your playing very much,
a sick old lady

and the last one contained
a dollar and said:
beat it,

would you:
stand there and play?

beat it?

walk away playing your fiddle?

In answering Mr. Lax's question, I would stand there and play all the louder knowing that for every person I make unhappy with my playing, I am making two or more joyful.  Even were I of meager means, the dollar telling me to beat it would come once, and the nickels and dimes of joy might come more often.  Even though the people I please would be of equally meager means as I am, assuming I am a busker by trade, I would feel better knowing I was doing good to some who had little good in their lives.

Either that, or the person who threw a dollar is poor and really hates violin.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Instrument of Choice - Robert Phillips

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams of clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba.  Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover's embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

In all honesty, I am not sure what the poet was going for with this poem.  Is he trying to make us feel bad for this apparently unlovable girl who chose the tuba?  Is he satirizing the popular culture image of a tuba player or "band geek?"  Are we supposed to laugh?

I think he was attempting to paint a serious picture, but the comparison of oompahs to mating calls is so patently stupid that I can't take it seriously.  As a farce, it's a bad one, since the tuba is one of the most in demand instruments.  If he was talking about Eb clarinet, sure, but tuba is both common and often much needed.  Also, encircled?  That describes a sousaphone.

Really, every aspect of this poem falls flat for me.  Perhaps it is aimed at the hearts of non-musicians who believe band nerd stereotypes, and would actually feel bad for a girl playing the tuba.  In my experience, all the girls I've met who play tuba are lovely people, and not strange social outcasts or malcontents who construct a twisted lover's fantasy around their instrument.  For shame, Robert Phillips.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tired As I Can Be - Bessie Jackson (Lucille Bogan)

I worked all the winter
and I worked all fall
I've got to wait till spring
to get my ashes hauled
and now I'm tired
tired as I can be
and I'm going back home
where these blues don't worry me

I'm a free-hearted woman
I let you spend my dough
and you never did win
you kept on asking for more
and now I'm tired
I ain't gonna do it no more
and when I leave you this time
you won't know where I go.

My house rent's due
they done put me out doors
and here you riding 'round here
in a V-8 Ford
I done got tired
of your low-down dirty ways
and your sister say you been dirty
dirty all a your days

I never will forget
when the times was good
I caught you standing out yonder
in the piney wood
and now I'm tired
tired as I can be
and I'm going back south
to my used to be

I mostly know Lucille Bogan as a blues singer, and looking at this text, it is fairly clearly a transcription of a blues she sang.  The most remarkable thing about her songs are how blunt and honest they are.  With a penchant for being vulgar, her songs are incredibly direct.  The unvarnished emotional sentiment in this song is very powerful, and exemplifies what a blues song is.

For fun, Lucille Bogan being vulgar enough to make Flo-Rida blush:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Iceberg Theory - Gerald Locklin

all the food critics hate iceberg lettuce.
you'd think romaine was descended from
opheus's laurel wreath,
you'd think raw spinach had all the nutritional
benefits attributed to it by popeye,
not to mention aesthetic subtleties worthy of
verlaine and debussy.
they'll even salivate over chopped red cabbage
just to disparage poor old mr. iceberg lettuce.

I guess the problem is
it's just too common for them.
it doesn't matter that it tastes good,
has a satisfying crunchy texture,
holds  its freshness,
and has crevices for the dressing,
whereas the darker, leafier varieties
are often bitter, gritty, and flat.
it just isn't different enough, and
it's too goddamn american.

of course a critic has to criticize:
a critic has to have something to say.
perhaps that's why literary critics
purport to find interesting
so much contemporary poetry
that just bores the shit out of me.

at any rate, I really enjoy a salad
with plenty of chunky iceberg lettuce,
the more the merrier,
drenched in an italian or roquefort dressing.
and the poems I enjoy are those I don't have
to pretend that I'm enjoying.

I am all for liking what you like, regardless of the opinion of others, or of the "expert" opinions of critics.  That said, Mr. Locklin can stick it up his ass.

Mr. Locklin seems to be calling me pretentious, or perhaps worse,  a faker, for enjoying things that are not simple and insubstantial.  If I enjoy kale or spinach in my salad, or enjoy reading T.S. Eliot, I simply must be pretending.  While I would agree that sometimes critics, or more likely, consumers looking to seem refined, will disparage something simple for no reason other than something being simple (not necessarily a bad thing), that does not create a dichotomy.

I can enjoy iceberg lettuce while still preferring spinach greens, just as I can prefer Gerard Manley-Hopkins to a lesser poet whose works are insubstantial, such as Mr. Locklin.  Iceberg lettuce is a filler, something you crunch through happily with few cares or concerns.  His poem is a quick, unsatisfying read, with not even as much crunch or pleasing moisture as iceberg lettuce.  This poem makes me angry, honestly, as its an ode to anti-intellectualism and the pratfalls of subjectivity.  Locklin celebrates his own uncritical palate, and seems not to understand that some people have specific and discerning taste.  Sometimes bitter leafy greens accentuate the sweetness of a fruit in a salad, but Locklin will not discover that, because iceberg lettuce is "good enough."  His loss.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Watercoloring - Billy Collins

The sky began to tilt,
a shift of light toward the higher clouds,
so I seized my brush
and dipped my little cup in the stream,

but once again I streaked the paper gray
with a hint of green,
water began to slide down the page,
rivulets looking for a river.

And again, I was too late-
then the sky made another turn,
this time as if to face a mirror
held in the arm of an outstretched god.

As always, the thing I am most struck by with Billy Collins is the way in which he controls tone and pacing.  A poem that is as seemingly carefree and light, free-flowing as the clouds in a sun-dappled sky, actually has extremely tight control over its pace, tense, and tone.

We are greeted with a narrator who presumably, is watching the clouds, looking for inspiration to paint.  The title, notably, is active.  It's an activity.  "Watercoloring."  The narrator intends to watercolor, not merely to paint.  The language is wet and active, mutable.  At the start of the poem, the sky is tilting, so the narrator acts decisively.  The brush was "seized" rather than picked up.  The last line of the first stanza gives the impression of dipping the brush in the cup to mix colors, but carefully, Collins notes that the "cup" is dipped into the "stream", reinforcing the notion of moving water and color.

"Once again" the paper is streaked gray.  The narrator has done this before, presumably to little success, given the dissatisfaction expressed in the third stanza.  When the page is marked, it is not painted, but "streaked" and water, not color, "slides" down the page.  Watercoloring is an activity, and the language of the poem mimics the action of the word.  Watercoloring the canvas, water running into rivulets seeking a river, a cup dipped in a stream.  The language flows, effortlessly, but that tone is established in the tight diction and pacing words Collins uses.

The tone shift comes at the end, as it often does with Collins.  "Again" the narrator was "too late" which we can assume means a failure to capture the majesty of shifting clouds and sunset.  The only adequate comparison the narrator can come up with is a god, admiring his or her own majesty in a handmirror.  The tone goes from jovial, playfully introspective, to suddenly grand and majestic, much as clouds at sunset, despite being completely mundane, fascinate us without fail, and capture out imaginations and artistic sensibilities.