A Thursday Love Poem, “The Four Moon Planet,” by Billy Collins

Cover of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost"

Cover of The Notebooks of Robert Frost

I don’t know what Robert Frost was thinking when he jotted those words in his notes, “I have envied the four moon planet.” Or maybe he never wrote them at all. Maybe Billy Collins just made the whole thing up. I’ll have to read The Notebooks of Robert Frost to find out for sure. But it’s a lovely poem that Billy created from Frost’s idea.

And since aliens and outer space are sometimes subjects of scary movies and costumes (I’ve dressed as an alien for Halloween, haven’t you?), then maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to make “The Four Moon Planet” by Billy Collins our October 31st Thursday Love Poem. You know, it being Halloween and all, and we bloggers feeling this market-driven need to relate everything to everything else.

Come to think of it, isn’t that what poets do? I recall Billy saying as much in another poem. “The Trouble with Poetry,” I believe it was.

Aside: And while I’m thinking of it, if you managed to miss the former Poet Laureate reading, quipping, and doing poetry tricks with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report Tuesday night, treat yourself by clicking here.

But what’s a Thursday Love Poem, you ask? Well, let me quote myself from last Thursday, when we enjoyed the first ever Thursday Love Poem. Last week we were dumped unceremoniously by Edna St. Vincent Millay via the Thursday Love Poem feature’s flagship poem, appropriately called “Thursday.”

. . . And what should a Thursday Love Poem be here on The Dad Poet? Well, let’s face it, it’s got to be a bit unconventional. No Hallmark cards of course, and none of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Not that your sweetheart doesn’t deserve a nice greeting card, and not they the Bard’s love poems are not a delight (come to think of it a few might actually fit in here) . . . But we have already read Robert Burns’, “my luv is like a red red rose.” Here I want to share something different, off-center, unexpected, something that resonates, but may not be what you expect from a love poem.

. . . I do not wish to act as if true love and romance in a poem is “dishonest,” as some writers claim. But for a poem to be a Thursday Love Poem it will have to look at that tenderness squinting sideways, maybe standing on its head, in order to give us a unique view, one other than what the masses have come to expect of a love poem.

In other words a Thursday Love Poem isn’t your grandmother’s love poem, baby.

And so for this Thursday Love Poem we go galactic, but subtly with the master of wit and winsomeness, Billy Collins. Perhaps I’ll make a brief comment or two below the poem’s text.

 

The Four-Moon Planet

I have envied the four-moon planet.
-The Notebooks of Robert Frost

Maybe he was thinking of the song
“What a Little Moonlight Can do”
and became curious about
what a lot of moonlight might be capable of.

But wouldn’t this be too much of a good thing?
and what if you couldn’t tell them apart
and they always rose together
like pale quadruplets entering a living room?

Yes, there would be enough light
to read a book or write a letter at midnight,
and if you drank enough tequila
you might see eight of them roving brightly above.

But think of the two lovers on a beach,
his arm around her bare shoulder,
thrilled at how close they were feeling tonight
while he gazed at one moon and she another.

From Ballistics
Copyright © 2008 by Billy Collins
Random House

Alright then. You have heard me defend Collins, as if he needs defending, from those who criticize his “simplicity,” using the word “accessible” as if it were a bad thing, as if erecting an electric, barbed-wire fence around an art museum were a good idea. You have heard me say a hundred times that accessibility does not equal simplicity. Neither does complexity, ambiguity, or depth of thought require linguistic word puzzles meant to lose the reader and prove how very clever and intelligent the poet is. Collins is certainly accessible, but he’s anything but simplistic.

And this poem is a prime example. It may also serve as an illustration of why I love poetry so much.  Prose might have simply told us, “In matters of love we are so unknowably different from each other that we are doomed to have wildly divergent views of what our relationship actually is.” Or, “We never see each other for who we are, and nobody could ever truly know the other’s thoughts.”

This is probably all true; it might even be a revelation, but how beautifully Collins sets us up, not to tell us this, but to let us discover it ourselves in the final line, “while he gazed at one moon and she another.” He says it without ever saying it. And the result is that tiny gasp, maybe not the freezing, headless sensation Emily Dickinson described, but a tug in the gut that makes me feel something true. And it comes about from a carefully laid trap that I am glad to have fallen into, the way I am glad when Agatha Christie brilliantly shows me why I should have known all along what Miss Marple understood about the murderer. This is why I can’t get enough good poems in my life, getting slapped in the gut, liking it, and asking for more.

Poem on.

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24 thoughts on “A Thursday Love Poem, “The Four Moon Planet,” by Billy Collins

  1. Great article! and i for one love many of Collin’s poems, just for that very fact: he is the Master of trap doors, and how fun they are to fall through. Thanks for the enjoyable read. “)

  2. Robert Frost. My second favorite poet after …. Carl Sandburg. One of my favorite Sandburg poems is this tiny one ….

    Fog

    The fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.

    And thank you for your poetic writings …. always interesting and often soothing.

    • Ah, Sandburg. A great choice for a favorite! And I certainly have an affinity for his fog poems as well. He had a few of them. Must be a Chicago thing. :) He also had a beautiful sense of metaphor and soul.

      And Frost, well, I’m a big fan, and I am convinced that most Americans miss the mark with him. Perhaps it’s the downside of being so popular and well known–people learn and hear just enough to misquote you! He’s so much more brilliant, so much darker and deeper than that simple country poet personae that he enjoyed putting on for us.

      I think Collins does this too. I imagine he privately chuckles every time he is criticized for being “simple.” Frost was, and Collins is anything but simple. But there is some satisfaction for the angel who delivers his message just whistling up the sidewalk the way the mail man does (an image stolen from “Questions about Angels” by Billy Collins). It’s like Tony Morrison once said, “If the work shows, the work wasn’t done.”

      Thanks so much for visiting and chatting with me, Annie! And thanks for the wonderful little Sandburg gem.

  3. I think the issue so many people have with Frost is that so many of us “do poetry”. We like to get deep into it, deconstruct obscure pieces of a line, and marvel at the twists and turns in complex imagery and turns of phrase. All one may do with Robert Frost is follow his simple thread, and if one isn’t careful, come to the end of it and find just one simple little knot that isn’t doing anything all that special.

    And that right there is the whole point, to me, for many of the reasons you’ve put in your post and also your comment above. Robert Frost puts on this “just a country poet puttin’ stuff down plain” personae in his poetry as well, but I’ve known quite a few country poets so I know the gig. It’s the same gig as the wandering taoist monk: you put stuff out there plainly and matter-of-fact because that’s what the world is, that’s where you find those “hidden” and deep meanings that tug in your gut.

    I guess what I’m saying is… Too many people use poetry as an exercise in scanning the stars for hidden constellations, while the real diamonds are down in the grubby ole earth. I like best the poetry that sits down in the dirt with me and draws pictures with one dusty finger.

    (ps ~ it was for thinking of you that got me to start posting again on Halloween, all my best to you and yours, with gratitude for what you share with this world)

    • Thank you for that post script, Nynia. I am grateful that something I’ve written inspired you to start blogging again.

      As for Frost, well, I will say it again, I’m a big fan. I wonder if I was unclear. When I said “Frost was, and Collins is anything but simple,” I meant that neither Collins nor Frost are simple. Their language may be very readable, approachable, common and easy to understand, but there is so much subtly and understatement, the irony and skill with which they use the language, the striking images and startling metaphors (Collins’ “Weighing the Dog”, as an analogy for assessing the weight of a relationship lost, for instance).

      When I say that I prefer accessible language I do not mean that I want no difficulty in my poetry at all, only that there should be a door in, and that the challenge shouldn’t be so arduous that nobody but the poet and a few fellow scholars would bother to break and enter. My point is that a lot of modern and post modern poetry seems to have no door, or at least it is nigh on impossible for most readers to find the key to unlock it.

      I prefer the door to be, if not open, open-able, even if it takes a little pushing and jiggling of the knob. And if I have to kick it down to get in, I better be given some clue that it will not be a waste of my time to do so. I want the entryway to be intriguing, inviting me in. I want to enjoy the maze, not be frustrated and baffled. I want it to delight me as it allows me to find its secrets. If it offers no way in what is the point of writing it?

      But I don’t want it to be so easy it’s boring. I don’t want it to be the same phrases I’ve heard a hundred times before. I enjoy some challenge, some game, and I do not think that simply saying it plainly and “matter of fact” teaches us anything at all. Our mothers told us matter-of-factly, plainly, “do this, don’t do that,” but did we learn as much? Was it as much fun as exploring the abandoned buildings ourselves? Was it as exciting as actually almost falling into the well we were not supposed to go near?

      Poetry should be a little dangerous. But it shouldn’t be impossibly deadly. Honing the art of leading us along that edge, showing us, but helping us learn ourselves too is at the heart of good poetry.

      Looking at our world and ourselves in new ways, from an odd angle, from some unique perspective that we had not considered is what is called for in poetry. And to do that we need to be taken out of the plain, cliche’ realm of those daily facts.

      Go ahead, sit in the dirt and draw, but make it a sketch in the dirt that helps me transcend the dirt. Make me think; make me squint; make me stand on my head, as I’ve said, or entice me to get down in the dust to see what you see, but please do not tell me the same old thing in the same tired way and then call such a dull presentation a “poem.” This is what Emily Dickinson was saying when she said to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

      1129
      Emily Dickinson

      Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
      Success in Circuit lies
      Too bright for our infirm Delight
      The Truth’s superb surprise

      As Lightning to the Children eased
      With explanation kind
      The Truth must dazzle gradually
      Or every man be blind —

      Give me, Emily says, a little intriguing syntax to chew on, as the light in your language dawns on me. But don’t blind me all at once. Of course she doesn’t, however say to make it a puzzle that only a physics professor can decipher. And I think poets like Frost and Collins do an excellent job of both puzzling and delighting us, helping us to think, to see for ourselves, dazzling us gradually, albeit sometimes in lightning flashes.

      I am going on and on, I know. I am sorry. I do not mean to insult you, but honestly, if Frost is too simple for you, then I don’t know what else to say except that you must be much smarter than I’ll ever be.

      If you can read “Out, Out” or “Acquainted with the Night,” or for god’s sake “Birches” and find only “one simple little knot” in his threads of images, metaphors and implications, and not find in them “anything all that special,” then your intellect is far beyond anything this little blog of mine could speak to.

      A friend in this thread was talking to me today about some of Frost’s more challenging poems like “Directive,” but even in the popular “Mending Wall” there is so much so subtly woven into those lines, about the “complexity of the human heart,” even in their form, the way they are laid out, and especially, he reminded me, in the character of the narrator, not just the neighbor.

      I am working on a video, to replace one I did before, and adding commentary about his most misquoted work, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a poem that very plainly says that the two roads “were about the same,” and when one actually takes the time to read it one realizes that there is much, almost between the lines, in subtle phrases, about how we humans make it up as we go along, constructing our own personal histories behind us so that we can live with ourselves later. It’s actually a rather wry and dark piece, not the “I Did It My Way” proclamation of personal independence that out-of-context quotes on t-shirts and coffee mugs would have us believe.

      Most importantly, in the feigned deception of it, the poem is honest. It’s not that he “took the road less traveled by,” but that he will be “telling this with a sigh (emphasis mine), somewhere ages and ages hence.” Heck, even the title adds to this complexity; It’s not called, “The Less Traveled Road,” though we are tempted to call it that. No, it’s called, “The Road Not Taken.” And doesn’t that tell us more about human nature, regret, and doesn’t that maybe nudge us a little closer to an honest letting go?

      And what’s really creepy is that it’s almost as if Frost knew we would, by our own arrogant nature, only hear what we wanted to hear, that we would do to it just what we’ve done, though he clearly invites us to let the poem speak if we would just stand at the intersection of those paths that “equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” In junior high we who told ourselves we’d read the whole poem later, and just skim the beginning and end for now, take the quiz, get the grade. Even then, if we were honest we were like the narrator, “knowing how way leads on to way,” we doubted if we “should ever come back.” Very Stephen King of him if you ask me.

      Well, I thank you for taking the time to comment, Nynia, and I must apologize for my long-winded reply. But this subject is rather important to me, and pretty much the fulcrum on which most of my writing about poetry balances. I mean no offense, but I simply could not disagree with you more about Robert Frost. The man, even while putting on a show of simplicity (which he intended thinking readers to eventually see through), was quite simply brilliant, much darker, and much more honest and crafty in revealing the human soul than he is given credit for.

    • Whoops, I was terribly unclear in my comment, but I’m sort of glad in a way, because it drew out such a great followup comment from you!

      I had meant to agree with you in the reasons people skip over Frost, as they see only the “skimming the surface” reading. There IS a great deal of complexity in his poetry, and it’s easily missed by people who choose not to look for it. As you very well put it, so much modern poetry “has no door in” because it just won’t give you an entry-point, and THAT is what too many people feel is a required component for “complexity”. That can be a fun game to play, but it’s not my idea of enjoyable poetry.

      That’s why Robert Frost is one of my favorite, because there are so very many angles in what appear to be very straightforward shapes. And for me, that’s what life is: so very, very many angles in a very straightforward globe. Where so many poems are complicated mazes with a billion impossibly complex turns and perhaps none of them will let you further in… Well, I more like the Nazca spirals, or even more complex ones where you encounter many twists and even false stops on the way in, but if you stay with it and keep a hand on it, it will lead you to the center. Give me a puzzle, yes, but provide a journey that will bring the destination if I’m willing to walk it.

      Hm, I’m not much clearer today, huh. Serves me right for getting caught up in talking about poetry on a haphazard weekend (lots of family in town for my son’s third birthday).

      Anyway, here is what taking a finger and drawing in the dust means to me: So many of my favorite stories involve someone writing a truth in the ground. It’s a very humble, unassuming way to try to convey something, but it won’t be a crisply-clear message. You can’t draw a detailed picture in the dirt with your finger, you can only do the lines. The viewer then has to follow those lines and see what you meant to draw, let alone what other meaning is in the picture. Someone walking by could… well, walk right on by it, not even noticing it because it’s literally “beneath them”. Or they could say “Oh, some kid scribbled in the dirt.” Or they could get down there and sort it out, taking the time to find the meaning that’s in their soul to find. If they’re lucky, as they continue down their path, they’ll grow in ways that help them find further meaning they’d missed before in messages such as, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”

      All that to say — Ditto. I feel the same way about Robert Frost, you just say it far better. I would love to see the video on commentary regarding The Road Not Taken, as it’s one of my very favorite. (And one I’ve modeled once or twice for character backgrounds in RPGs.) I think it’s a perfect example of “drawing in the dirt”, because it has become one of the most cliche-abused quotes in poetry by people who just glanced at it as they walk by… and yet if you sit with it and spend time with it… Well, you know what I mean. Following the real message of the poem itself is the Less Traveled Road (tee hee hee).

      So thank you, sincerely, for your comment, even though you feared it may have been taken poorly. It was not. You rightly responded to my very poorly-put comment with a much better phrasing of what I failed to say. I’m no Robert Frost, but I can definitely work harder at making sure my meanings are there to be found by those who will sit with them.

    • Oh! I was going to say at first that I was puzzled, and that I wasn’t sure if I was misunderstanding you or you were misunderstanding me, but I see it was the former. I should have asked to be clear. I am sorry about that, but I’m really glad you liked my lengthy explanation at least.

      And I am grateful for the opportunity. I’ve been working on an essay much like this in my head for a while now. Thanks for the explanation, and I trust you had a lovely weekend.

      Thank you for clarifying

    • I want to correct myself… “do better”. It’s when I work harder that I end up throwing in those doors of complexity and get so deep in that I sometimes forget to add a doorknob…

      (And the word I was looking for earlier was Labyrinth – particularly of Knossis or even Gnosis)

  4. Pingback: A Thursday Love Poem, Edgar Allan Poe Meets Stevie Nicks | The Dad Poet

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