Political License


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I’m in love with poet Billy Collins. Do poets make good husbands? If so, how might I woo him?
— Jaqi H., Watertown, Massachusetts

Well, many poets haven’t had the best track records as mates, but I think Billy Collins would make a great husband. Unfortunately for you though, he already is one. But do not despair, Jaqi H.!  These six steps will help you cope with your Billy Collins addiction:

  1. Admit you are powerless to Billy Collins. In the presence of Billy Collins (maybe at a poetry reading at a local university where the acoustics are perfect and the wine is plenty), your knees become wobbly as his verses caress the hairs of your inner ear and you need to sit down. Admit that all you will ever need in your life is Billy Collins. “Billy,” you should sigh before you go to bed, if you don’t already, “I am powerless.”
  2. Believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to Billy Collins: the court. Begin devising a plot to ruin his marriage. Plant masculine underpants in his wife’s purse. Steal her keys and cell phone, making her late for dinner without a good excuse. Breed mistrust until the marriage falls apart.
  3. Turn your life and will over to Billy Collins. Say to him, “I am not like your ex-wife” (who at your devising seems to have slept with the landscape artist) and prove it to him by supplicating yourself before him. Bring him shelled pistachios when he’s writing a new poem and thoughtfully nod your head whenever he reads.
  4. Make a fearless and honest inventory of your weaknesses and attributes for Billy Collins. For example #1: “I am not a good poet.” #2: “I spend too much time organizing my desk.” #3: “I like poems with the word ‘masturbation’ in them.” #4: “I’m awfully good at balancing my checkbook.”
  5. Admit to Billy Collins your wrongs: “I’m not a good poet, Billy!”
  6. Ask Billy Collins to remove whatever he sees as defects in your character. He’ll show you the light. He’ll make you a good poet. He’ll show you how to maintain the proper desk of a poet, the intrinsic organization of chaos. He’ll probably keep #3, giving you a double thumbs-up sign. Then he’ll remember that he’s horrible at balancing his checkbook, and that’s when he’ll realize once and for all that you two are a perfect match.

This six-step program to coping is not endorsed by psychologists or Billy Collins, but I think you’ll find it satisfactory.


Does a poet want McCain or Obama for President?
— Kaplin H., Seattle, Washington

I don’t think I’m at liberty to answer that, but if there’s a poet out there who is not voting for Barack Obama this November, I would like him or her to write me and explain why.

Who might be best suited to write and read an inaugural poem should either candidate win?
— Jamie S., Chapel Hill, North Carolina

I can answer that one. If Barack Obama wins, the poet who first comes to my mind as best suited to read would be Lucille Clifton, particularly if she read “Blessing the Boats”:

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will

love your back    may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

This poem captures the intrepid change and accomplishment that Obama’s campaign promises. McCain’s campaign promises strong, experienced leadership, so I think he would choose Alice Notley, who was not only born in McCain’s home state of Arizona (yay for Bisbee!), but in her long association with the New York School of poetry, she has demonstrated that she’s not afraid to be “mavericky.” I would almost vote for McCain just to hear Alice Notley read “Only Poem” at the inaugural ceremony:

I just hate dinner
& everything. I
hate it. And so
I hate everything.

Hi. My wife is from America. She likes poetry so I want to write her a poem, but I don’t know English well.
— Gamal A., Alexandria, Egypt

Quan Barry’s speaker of “Withunsday” speaks for all of us when she admits, “All I wanted was this place of glory/ and things that can never be/ to be.” We all want the impossible: to fly, to lift tall buildings with a single arm, to have gills, but we can accomplish more when we explore what we can do. Not that I’m saying that English is impossible for you, Gamal A. — you probably know English better than you let on — I’m just saying that right now you probably can’t write her a sonnet (but more on that later). I think the best thing for you to do would be to expose her to poets from the Middle East: Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Adonis, Muhamad Taha Ali, or the Egyptian Salah Jaheen, all of whom have ample poems in English translation, or if you can’t find a translation of a poet that I’m not familiar with, you two could translate a poem together. I can think of nothing that would unite a husband and wife for a more noble cause.

If you really want to write her a love sonnet though, I can help. I’m going to provide you with what I call a “poetry template,” a well-known poem with select words omitted to be supplied by you, like a Mad Lib except that you already know the context. I have a whole book of these that I used when I was teaching ESL in Uzbekistan many years ago, but I made this one especially for you, using “Sonnet,” by C.B. Trail:

This is for the afternoon we lay in the    (noun)  
After it had been    (noun)    for half a year,
And I kissed you and unbuttoned your    (noun)  
And    (verb)   you and made you smile, my dear.
And of all the good    (noun)   that love means,

One of them is to    (verb)   you there

And make you smile, among the    (noun)  

And feel your    (noun)   and your sweet short hair,

And kiss your breasts and put my    (noun)  

Into the delirium between your soft pale    (noun)   ,

Because the    (noun)  has been much too long

And soon will come again, when this love    (verb)   .

I will hear    (noun)   preached, and some of them be true,

But I will not    (verb)    that afternoon with you.

Please send your poem to me, too, when you finish. Good luck! • 27 October 2008