Thursday, February 19, 2009

Litany

1890_Wheat_Field_with_Cornflowers
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cornflowers, 1890


----------You are the bread and the knife,
----------The crystal goblet and the wine...
-----------------Jacques Crickillon--



You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

--
Billy Collins --

Mary Jo Salter in the NY Times on Billy Collins' Litany:

Among all the poems in
''Nine Horses,'' the marvelous ''Litany'' strikes me as the likeliest new candidate to inspire the question ''Do you know the Billy Collins poem about . . . ?'' What sets ''Litany'' apart is that the words themselves, not just the situation, are so memorable. That's because it capitalizes on some of the oldest verbal conventions in poetry -- parallelism, refrain, the lover's mystical hyperbole -- and simultaneously pokes fun at them. Quoting a snippet of a poem by the Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon (''You are the bread and the knife, / The crystal goblet and the wine''), Collins offers his lover a stanza of similarly lofty praises before asserting himself:

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is no way you are the pine-scented air.

And the poet isn't finished: ''It might interest you to know . . . that I am the sound of rain on the roof.'' It turns out he's a lot of other things she may not have appreciated: ''I am also the moon in the trees / and the blind woman's teacup.'' He's not so hardhearted, though, that he won't throw her a bone at the end: ''But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife. / You are still the bread and the knife.''

3 comments:

Peter said...

This is certainly a wonderful piece of poetry!

Ruth said...

I just love Billy Collins, and I love that he was Poet Laureate in all his "accessibility."

I hadn't read this one, and I love it.

I'm just so happy to breathe in your blog!

George Dance said...

I read "Litany" for the first time today, and discovered your blog while googling to find who "Jacques Crickillon" is. Great poem, great review, great blog.