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Poetry As Storytelling – An STC! Analysis of Billy Collins’ Forgetfulness

By on December 8, 2017 in Beat Sheets, Rites of Passage, Today's Blog
The poet Billy Collins

The poet Billy Collins

Storytelling takes many forms. On this site we tend to talk about movies and novels, short films, songs and music videos, even the occasional 30 second spot. But what about poetry? We haven’t delved too deeply into that form here at STC!, even though storytelling began with poetry, like the epic poetry of The Odyssey and Beowulf, which are epic in every way, including length.

Modern poetry has become far shorter and often departs from classic storytelling in various ways, sometimes producing a simple, stirring tableau, sometimes spinning elaborate philosophical webs. Still, modern poems often tell stories, even the shortest poems. Length is irrelevant. A Haiku can tell a story.

Billy Collins is one of the modern masters of poetry. His voice is contemporary, casual, accessible, displaying soft shoe dexterity with an ironic smile. And he is one of my favorites. Most of his poems follow a particular pattern, starting with a seemingly innocuous observation about everyday life, teasing out a theme with startling cleverness, and then taking an always surprising turn into the profound. He relaxes the reader with his wit, disarms with his dazzle, then delivers his coup de grace. The relaxed conversationalist is a disguise for a consummate craftsman with the tenderest of hearts. A great poet, yes, and a storyteller of the highest caliber. At least, I think he is.

Because I wanted to test that theory, I thought I’d take a stab at examining one of his poems from an STC! perspective to see what insights might emerge. I chose one of my favorites, pretty much at random, because honestly there were dozens to choose from. This one is called Forgetfulness. It’s a Rite of Passage/Old Age Passage story. Yes, there is a distinct and unmistakable STC! genre. But does it follow the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet? We shall see.

First the poem, then my analysis.

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins

STC! Analysis

Before we dive in, let’s circle back to the genre. According to Blake, Rite of Passage stories are the domain of serious and dramatic life issues, no matter how large or small, even if presented humorously. These are the pathways of life we all must traverse, as fundamental and primal as birth and death (or trying to stave off memory loss!). Blake said these stories concern 1) a life problem revolving around a particular age (i.e., childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age), 2) a wrong way to handle the fundamental problem (usually a diversion from confronting the inherent pain), and 3) a solution that involves acceptance. Now let’s see to what extent the poem follows this genre model and the BS2.

The title of the poem itself indicates the “life problem,” and its cause — the inexorable march of time. For most, advancing age will erode one’s memory, and even though none of us is overly concerned with the fleeting memory lapses that aggravate us at any age, when these lapses become frequent and pronounced it’s cause for deep concern. “Forgetfulness” is the Problem/Set-Up for this story. In addition, the Catalyst — the thing that’s “the first to go” — is right there in the fourth word in the first line: “author.” Could this be playful self-deprecation by the poet about the inconsequence of writers? I would say, absolutely, it’s part of the Fun and Games that are always front and center in Billy Collins’ poetry and a hallmark of his style.

It’s as if he’s suggesting that poetry, especially Billy Collins’ poetry, will not last; nor will any writer’s work, not when memory goes, as it will for most of us — and of course no memory will outlive death.

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

Another hallmark of Billy Collins’ poetry is “comic escalation,” fully in evidence here: in the first stanza we move from author to title, to plot, conclusion, the novel itself, and even the experience of reading all comprises the ladder of details we climb to learn what’s at stake — it’s actually quite horrendous to consider, even though it’s presented here with droll matter-of-factness. There’s even a glimpse of the hero’s personality, as he’s sensitive enough (a poet, of course!) to know that the conclusion he’s forgetting is “heartbreaking,” and that word actually foreshadows the “heartbreaking conclusion” to this very poem and specifies an essential ingredient of the best of poetry, possibly even the best of all narrative endeavors.

These thoughts are also presented as a subtle image, an Opening Image: facts of memory loss are “obediently” following each other “one by one” out of memory, almost like figures marching in line. It suggests the regimented and inexorable nature of the process the poem will examine. But in the next line the poem softly pivots, where these memories–

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

This shift is the Break into Two where we get the promise of the premise, and the Fun and Games of the poem: the playful metaphor of memories as retirees who can take their leave and find rest and peace in a warm, “southern hemisphere” where there are “no phones.” This is the upside-down/funhouse mirror world of the poem. Two points here, the first being how benign this depiction of memory loss is, and how it promotes sympathy with the poor, tired memories themselves; secondly, we have the references to brains and phones, both complex communication mechanisms that rely on connections and wiring to work properly. Anywhere without phones, though peaceful, is also a place where “connection” is challenged, so despite the comfort of the retirement village metaphor, it’s anything but comforting to the person within whom these memories reside and depart — where this “disconnection” exists.

This playful metaphor disguises the dark truth at the center of the subject. It’s a sleight of hand. In addition, I would say that the B Story here is one’s relationship with one’s memories (here depicted as separate entities), and the spiritual lesson, or insight, is the idea that one’s relationship with one’s memories is really one’s intimate relationship with Self. The two are inextricably linked and to sever them is tragic.

The poem continues, in a series of F&G details (I told you it was a hallmark of his style), the metaphor of memories as departing vacationers. Note the specific memories listed, first the Muses, so essential to the life and mind of an author, and then the quadratic equation, which presumably has zero relevance, so can be considered a random fact that the Hero held onto for a lifetime. Yet all are vulnerable, all at risk:

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

And what is a Hero to do? Fight back, of course, against the Bad Guys Closing In — or in this case, taking their leave. All a Hero can do is try to work that memory muscle as hard as s/he can by memorizing new things, or re-memorizing old things, any old random thing, but alas, it’s at best a zero sum game. This is the goal-mission of ACT II: the fight to remember!

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

— (which can be seen as a false victory here at the Midpoint) —

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

And that Midpoint victory is followed immediately by a reassertion of the problem, a restatement of the power of the opposition. In story terms, Bad Guys Are Closing In with greater force, but with a comic touch, of course, as “tongue” gives way to the absurdly sounding “spleen.” And speaking of spleen, a word that now has associations with anger (to “vent one’s spleen”), was apparently at the dawn of the Romantic Era more often associated with sadness and melancholy (so Wikipedia tells me!), which is the primary emotion resting just behind all the humor of this poem.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

The tone becomes serious again as things worsen in classic dramatic escalation, right to the All Is Lost moment:

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

Yet spun with a comic flair:

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

All Is Lost is leavened by the following line because the “L” is incorrect, as the river he’s failing to remember is most likely the Styx, the river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld, and so actually starts with an “S” (and not an “L”). But even this humor is ironic and sad.

After invoking the Underworld (i.e., Hell, which is why I consider it All Is Lost), the next reference escalates things further into “oblivion,” followed by the suggestion that memory loss, in severe cases, will lead to physical muscle memory loss where even simple physical tasks will become impossible. Things are getting progressively worse, as they always do (or should!) at this point in stories.

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

And so we reach the Finale, the storming of the castle: the Hero will continue to fight! And it’s “no wonder” that this fight is “war,” and the implication is that this war will go on for as long as the Hero is able, though there is something desperate and almost pathetic in this rising in the middle of the night in order to strengthen the memory. Still, it’s a “struggle to remember” — this War with Hell — that will likely persist to the death.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

In his inimitable style, Billy Collins saves the best for last, the Closing Image, which is another pivot; quiet, still, and poised like a held breath, and filled with heartrending poignancy, referencing the most meaningful kind of memory, the thing most worthy of remembrance, yet already slipping away, slipping away, slipping away…

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

And there we have it, right at the end — the Dark Night of the Soul. In this last line we have the worst case scenario, where the Hero is conscious of how far his memory has failed him, before his memory lapses altogether. Here he perceives the loss of the most important things — of love poems, and perhaps love itself — and is conscious of  his inevitable defeat that looms just ahead in this hopeless war to reclaim his past, his story, his soul. Hell will win in the end, and the inevitable trip down the mythological river awaits him, awaits us all.

Another reason this poem is profound is because the very nature of poetry, as Seamus Heaney has pointed out, is itself an act of remembering. The poet, since poetry began (which was when storytelling itself began), has been the steward of our personal, cultural and collective memories. For a poet, for someone who lives in the warm sea of their creative minds, the loss of memory may be the most primal loss conceivable. That’s what this poem is about; this is its Theme.

Theme, from an STC! perspective, is the message that foreshadows the primary transformation, and all the stakes involved with that change; it is the fundamental truth the story examines. Here the change is straightforward and universal, from well-being to decline, and the story-poem charts the course from one to the other, in the form of a Debate of sorts: to rally against the forces of antagonism or capitulate and die. Despite the almost unbearable sadness, the inherently grim subject matter is delivered with wry good humor and tongue wagging in cheek.

This poem gives me chills. It is also classic Billy Collins: a Sunday in the park that almost invisibly becomes a titanic battle about identity waged with time itself, albeit by way of the backwards tiptoe. It’s astonishing and I love it.

It also has, to my great surprise and delight, a classic dramatic story structure — far more than I would have predicted or imagined. It is clearly filled with Fun and Games; in fact, the very premise of the poem derives from an F&G metaphor. In addition, it follows the BS2 as precisely as a 7-stanza poem possibly can, hitting most of the major beats in precise order.

As for its Rite of Passage/Old Age Passage genre designation, it definitely is about a life problem (memory loss) that is primal and universal. But does it have a wrong way approach, and does the resolution turn on acceptance? No, it doesn’t. There is very little time. It depicts one way — perhaps the only way — to proactively address the problem, that being to fight it. Furthermore, there will be no surrender; the fight is all — love poems are worth going to war for, after all.

Yet the inescapable truth is that age, and memory loss, will ultimately prevail. None of us is immortal. Such is the nature of life. So the fight against it is hopeless, and yet inherently heroic. And at such time as we willingly kiss our memories goodbye and the war ends, we can look forward to joining them at the metaphorical fishing village where there are no phones, where we just might see one or two of them on occasion, and nod and wave without recognizing them at all.

Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels. Copyright © 1999 by Billy Collins
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Tom Reed

About the Author

About the Author: Tom Reed's entertainment career started in the circus: Dumbo's Circus, a Disney cable show where he juggled art department and stage manager duties. And juggled. He leapt from production to executive positions at grindhouse shop Cinetel Films, the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, and Imagine Entertainment before settling on the toughest art department of all... the writer's room. When not writing, he's probing the grand mysteries of story, a cat never far from his side. .

There Are 5 Comments

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  1. rob Myran says:

    The River you are probably looking for is the River Lethe.

    “Also known as the Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness), the Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified.”
    – Wikipedia

  2. Tom Reed says:

    Thank you, Rob. I’m sure you’re right. I hadn’t heard of the Lethe — or had I just forgotten it? I am happily schooled. Yes, memories are floating down the dark mythological river of forgetfulness. Not ironic, but instead perfectly apt, which is equally as good. The writer obviously has a classical education, and Greece, though not in the southern hemisphere, is a southern climate. Thank you again for pointing that out.

    • rob Myran says:

      And thanks for going through the poem showing how poem is a story and follows the same stage as a book, screen play, etc. Great job. I was not familiar with the poem and enjoyed it. It is chillingly true and I loved is use of humor on such a tough subject.

  3. A wonderful analysis of a great poem, Tom! I’d never heard of Billy Collins but am so glad you introduced me.

    A quick Google search led me to his poem called “Aristotle”. Very suitable if you consider that Aristotle is “patron saint” of screenwriters. The poem plays with Aristotle’s simplest formula for story-structure: beginning, middle and end. Read it here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46706/aristotle

  4. Tom Reed says:

    Caroline, I just read it. Of course I had forgotten that, too, even though I have the book of poetry and have read it cover to cover, though not for years. It reminded me of what I said in my introduction, how there are scores of poems to choose from, and how every single one could be my favorite. Like all his poems, it comes down to the last few lines, and leaves you breathless and devestated and, how does one say it…”verklempt.” God I love him. And Aristotle, too! And ll the poets between the two.

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