“Homer Reciting his Poems“ (1790)
hot on the heels of my paean to
Billy Collins, his my favourite
poem of the year, a friend sent
me “Aristotle“, saying, hey, you
might like this, like this, Aristotle
has been my rebuke to Plato for
a while now, latent even in my
least metaphysical speculations
in his poem, Collins goes back
to the earliest definitions of the
structure of literary works as
anticipated, or defined even, by
arbiters who were trying to
understand their place and
function, the poems’, in the
culture, Aristotle’s “Poetics“ is
the very source, 350 BCE, the
diagram, for our understanding,
even in the present age, of what
we mean, in the West, by art,
we’ve been answering him ever
since, it’s genetic
Billy Collins‘ description is not
chronological, it’s poetic,
appropriate to its topic
its structure nevertheless
follows specifically Aristotelian
logic, shedding glory,
coincidentally, on both prophets
for a special treat, listen to the
poet’s audio recording at the
poem’s site – which delivers
even more compelling
information – by clicking the
red arrow pointing right
beside “Aristotle“, the title
R ! chard
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.
This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.
And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.