Thursday Poem: Fishing On The Susquehanna in July, by Billy Collins

It seems I have a thing for long titles all of a sudden. Finding a poem this week was harder than most, I had a dozen maybes, but nothing that quite clinched it for me. It’s not enough for a poem to be good, or even great, it has to also spark something in me that warrants elaboration. I was straining for something while searching today and didn’t realize what it was until I found this poem, Fishing On The Susquehanna in July. It begins:

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I love this opening salvo, and the way it immediately disabuses the reader of any notion they might have had about the poem based on the title. I think titles are often neglected in poetry, they’re not given their due as an extra line, another facet to the poem, and there are few people as good as Billy Collins in using that extra dimension to either get things going, or to re-contextualise a poem once it’s ended. Here, it’s the former of course and we discover for all that this poem is about fishing, Collins knows fuck all about it and you know what? It doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This is a direct attack on the notion that you should only ‘write what you know’, as well as a sly investigation into the imagination, into the role of art itself. But for now, it’s enough for him to not only establish what he has not done, but also to punch through the suspension of disbelief we require in consuming art – this is a meta poem, in that sense, as with the next few lines he brings us into the room he’s writing in.

But before I move past this beginning, let me say how much I love the word Susquehanna. I love writing it, I love sounding it out, and you best believe Collins does as well – not for nothing does he repeat it twice so close together. Let me tell you something, though, if you write a poem about the Susquehanna river and don’t use the unique sounds available in Susquehanna as often as you can without it being overbearing, you’re an idiot.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,
rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

Six lovely little lines, and they do so much. Yes, he counters the unspoken question, other people have no doubt actually experienced fishing on the river, and no, that doesn’t make them anymore qualified to write this poem, as the last three lines testify to so simply, so elegantly. He won’t be doing it anytime soon either, so from where does this knowledge come? It came, he tells us, from a painting he saw in a museum, of a scene like this one – one kind of art birthing another.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,
even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Then comes the clincher. Show me a man who can’t picture that damn hare poised on the brink of motion and I will show you a liar. There is nothing to say, in fact, that the hare doesn’t leap out as imagined – which is the point, that art is not just separate to life but an inimical part of it, that it not only mimics reality, but recreates it in a way that is every bit as real.

This is such a wonderful, skillful poem and I imagine on any day of any week I could have read it and loved it but the reason I chose it today is quite simply because of its tone. Nothing gets me going more than a conversational tone; likewise, there are few things I dislike more than an overly ornate one. I mentioned earlier the strain I felt reading all those maybe-poems, but as soon as I came across this one, I felt myself relaxing into its casualness, almost as though dipping into the liquid bliss of a certain river I no longer need to name. Go on, give the water a go.

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    May 28, 2015 at 5:08 pm · Reply

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