Forget the past. Remember the past.

Forget the past. Those failures that make you timid now? Screw them. Today is a new day. So you lost a great deal of what you had. So what? The future is before you. Press on.

Learn from the past. Be aware of those who have gone before or you are doomed to repeat their mistakes. They were not really that much different than you. This is how you approach life with wisdom. Don’t start a new church with your Bible and disregard 2000+ years of church history, as if all the saints were clods and all the reformers nothing but axe grinders. The ancient past is rich. Dig deep.

You don’t have to be defined by them. You need not carry on their curses, nor keep your own curses alive.

You are not alone. You are the next thread in a rich tapestry. Do not despair.

And this from Billy Collins:

Some Final Words

I cannot leave you without saying this:
the past is nothing,
a nonmemory, a phantom,
a soundproof closet in which Johann Strauss
is composing another waltz no one can hear.

It is a fabrication, best forgotten
a wellspring of sorrow
that waters a field of bitter vegetation.

Leave it behind. Take your head out of your hands
and arise from the couch of melancholy
where the window-light falls against your face
and the sun rides across the autumn sky,
steely behind the bare trees,
glorious as the high strains of violins.

But forget Strauss.
And forget his younger brother,
the poor bastard who was killed in a fall
from a podium while conducting a symphony.

Forget the past,
forget the stunned audience on its feet,
the absurdity of their formal clothes
in the face of sudden death,
forget their collective gasp,
the murmur and huddle over the body,
the creaking of the lowered curtain.

Forget Strauss
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than five hundred finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythm of my stepping-
am man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
just me,
a thin reed blowing in the night.

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300 sheep in the (Gutenberg) bible

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenburg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.

– from an article on printing

Nearly 600 years ago in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg unvieled his movable-type printing press and revolutionized the western world. In those days, though, they still used parchment made from animal hide. It was still a while before paper technology caught up. Billy Collin’s reflects on this in his poem Flock:

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

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Dreams (the sleepy kind) are so odd

Last night I dreamed one of our neighborhood cats snunk into our house and night and tipped over several of my heavy bookshelves. Our new kitten was there too, watching. I threw the cat back out into the alley because I didn’t want him to be a bad influence on our own cat. I’m not sure how he tipped the shelves over. They are pretty well anchored.

My Billy Collin’s kick is not over yet! Here is part of an homage to old Siggy that struck me as funny.


I think I know what he would say
about the dream I had last night
in which my nose was lopped off in a sword fight,
leaving me to wander the streets of 18th-century Paris
with a kind of hideous blowhole in the middle of my face.

But what would be his thoughts about the small brown leather cone
attached to my face with goose grease
which I purchased from a gnome-like sales clerk
at a little shop called House of a Thousand Noses

Beating your music with a hose

For the first ten years life, my parents were largely successful and shielding me from the wiles of pop culture. I was only familiar with classical music up until then. I had heard a little bit of country (Garth Brooks I think it was) and was not at all interested. I was unbelievably naive about all but a very narrow world of art. Then, ironically enough, on the bus to a church youth event, the driver had the radio tuned to a local pop station. I was 11 years old and starting 5th grade.

I’ll never forget it. They played “The Sign” by the Swedish group Ace of Base several times on the way to and from the hockey game or whatever it was we were going to see. The tune seems a bit cheesy looking back on it, but it had me captivated. I began listening to the radio in my bedroom in the evenings just to hear it again. And would you believe it, amidst the noise, I found other music I enjoyed too. This is all years before internet and file sharing, so the next logical step for me was to go buy an album. I remember running off in Walmart, fingering that CD with the $13.99 price tag, wondering on earth I was going to convince my mother to let me purchase it. Somehow, I must have gotten a hold of it, because I remember what came next.

Oh the horror. My parents listening to the CD. Reading through the lyrics on the liner notes. Trying to figure out what the songs where about. Seeing if they were about drugs, or sex, or gang-bangin’. Remember, this is Ace of Base we’re talkin’ about here. The high drama of “my boyfriend left me” was about as seedy as it got. I remember having to explain how the line “All that she want’s is another baby” on another one of the tracks was about how the girl is anxious to find another lover, NOT declaring some kind of serial pregnancy obsession. Really. I don’t mean to put my parents in a bad light. That’s not what this post is about and they were doing the best they could. But I’m not making that part up. It was ruled that I must get rid of the album. Actually, I can’t criticize them too much anyway – a few months later, someone had to explain to ME that Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane” really WAS about smoking marijuana.

Anyway, what bought this all to mind was another wonderful bit of verse by Billy Collins titled Introduction to Poetry:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The trouble with…

I just checked out Billy Collins latest poetry book. It’s titled The Trouble with Poety of course. The centerpiece poem comes on the second to the last page. I won’t quote the whole thing here for these parts are sufficient:

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry

I thought how fun (and possibly true) it might be to write this about other arts and disciplines…

the trouble with music is
that it encourages the playing of more music
more songbirds fluttering and chirping brightly
pooping on your windshield

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have played every note four bars
before, after, and with every other note

Music fills me with hope
and I rise high over the world on the wings of Icarus
Music fills me with despair
and I hit the ground hard as the curtain closes

But mostly music fills me
with the urge to play music

Or try this one:

the trouble with theology is
that it encourage the writing of more theology
more chickens crowding the roost
more crossing of the sea
to make one more disciple

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have measured the Trinity
down to the last parsec

Theology fills me with understanding
and the foundations of my city are laid deep
Theology fills me with confusion
and I despise my brothers

But mostly theology fills me
with the urge to write theology

And to end on a lighter note:

the trouble with cooking is
that it encourages more cooking
more fish out of the ocean
more rabbits hopping onto your plate

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when every taste is paired with every other
like Elk sausage in blueberry sauce
that was quite delicious
at the French place last night

Cooking fills me with joy
and I rise like a savory aroma
Cooking fills me with frustration
and I hit the fan above the range
distracted by the cost of ingredients
the mountain of dishes

But mostly cooking fills me…

That was fun!

Too many cooks spoil the art

I enjoy design work (web design, graphic design, page layout design, arranging furniture, etc.) but only when there are not too many people to please. One other person is good (like my wife). Two others starts to cause trouble. A committee of five meeting on what the new web site should look like is guaranteed to turn out something ugly, even if everyone on the team is perfectly competent in and of themselves, possessing reasonably good taste and design sensibility. And so, though I’m capable of navigating the social waters of such a meeting, the resulting product is often so disappointing, that I’d rather just butt out. I’ll let someone else have their way with the design. Even if I know of a way to improve upon it, to try and synthesize that with their ideas would actually make it worse.

The artist works best alone, or maybe with an assistant to bounce ideas of.

This is a another poem by Billy Collins called Instructions to the Artist.

It’s fun to imagine the evolving expression on the portrait painter’s face as his subject rattles off this list of parameters!

I wish my head to appear perfectly round
and since the canvas should be of epic dimensions,
please trace the circle with a dinner plate
rather than a button or a dime.

My face should be painted with an ant-like sense of detail;
pretend you are executing a street map
of Rome and that all the citizens
can lift thirty times their own weight.

The result should be a strained
but self-satisfied expression,
as if I am lifting a Volkswagen with one foot.

The body is no great matter;
just draw some straight lines
with a pencil and ruler.
I will not be around to hear the voice
of posterity calling me Stickman.

The background I leave up to you
but if there is to be a house,
lines of smoke rising from the chimney
should be mandatory.
Never be ashamed of kindergarten-
it is the alphabet’s only temple.

Also, have several kangaroos grazing
and hopping around in the distance,
an allusion to my world travels.

Some final recommendations:
I should like to appear hatless.
Kindly limit your palette to a single primary color, any one but red or blue.
Sign the painting on my upper lip
so your name will always be my mustache.

Though I fail to see how it is related to the rest of the poem, my favorite line is certainly:

Never be ashamed of kindergarten-it is the alphabet’s only temple.

There is a whole nother story wrapped up in that one.

Photo credit

Space Men and Women

OK. I’m being lazy this week with blogging. I’m just going to post one more Billy Collins poem. This one is called Man in Space.

All you have to do is listen to the way a man
sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people
and notice how intent he is on making his point
even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver,

and you will know why the women in science
fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own
are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine
when men from earth arrive in their rocket,

why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.

I think this poem could be about a lot of different things, depending on how you approach it. It sure reminded me of one of those old cheesy Star Trek episodes.

A lot of the gals on that show had getups like this. Half of them using ended up kissing William Shatner and then later trying to mind-control him or something. One person I read commented about this photo:

“This is the episode with the giant can opener duel! Excelleeeeeent.”

Photo credit

Bust out your iambic pentameter

Some more Billy Collins for ya.

I must say this is about how deep ole William‘s goods sounded to me in elementary school.

This one is simply called Sonnet.

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Billy Collins Poetry

I’ve gotten in conversations with several people about poetry over the past year. The common theme is that, try as we might, we just don’t “get” most poetry. That is to say, we don’t like it. Perhaps it’s more boredom than the inability to put our fingers on what is actually wrong with it.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve found some Yeats to be OK. Tennyson looked hopeful for a while, but I couldn’t get farther than the second chapter of Idylls of a King. What a snore. I have some Walt Whitman (still with dust) on my newly unpacked bookshelves. On second thought, I think it’s propping up the lamp on my desk upstairs.

One name that has come up a couple times in these conversations is Billy Collins. Supposedly this guy’s stuff is very accessible and actually quite good. Today at lunch, I had to pick-up my Rene Girard book at the library. It’s slow reading and even though I’m close to finished with it, I couldn’t renew it anymore. So I had to return it in the drive-up drop box and wait a day for it to be re-shelved, then grab it again. While I was there, I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room, which is kind of a “best of” from Collin’s last four books along with a few new poems. I sampled several sections over lunch.

Wow. This is really good stuff! I don’t even know where to start. It’s super. I MUST post a few here over the next week or so. They are often simple, often quirky, sometimes deep, sometimes intentionally shallow. This one is called Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House:

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbor’s dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Rejected Thoughts Returning

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever read about a new invention and thought, “Doh! I should have thought of that.” How about hear a beautiful piece of music and thought, “I could have written that!” When it comes to a lot of pop, you could even add a “I could have even sung that and played guitar on that album.” Do you ever get this feeling while reading a novel? In between thoughts of “That’s brilliant!” there are notes of “Hey, I could have written that…”

Have you ever thought quietly inside, “I DID think of that”, and feel a nagging frustration that you never did anything about it? Maybe you couldn’t have anyway. You were too busy with work and family. You didn’t have the money or contacts to make it reality. That book that never got out of the drafts inside your head. That symphony sitting just under the surface that never made it to ink. That brilliant startup idea that Google just paid 100 million for. Whatever. That is what I believe Emerson is speaking of.