Allow me to talk about Billy Collins’ poem Japan
for a moment.
Written in 12 tercets (that syllabically are not haiku even though the subject is) that takes the haiku to new dimensions, Collins' poem centres the speaker’s experience with, and reaction to, poetry.Japan
by Billy Collins
Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.
It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again
I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.
I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.
I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.
And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.
It’s the one about the one-ton
with the moth sleeping on the surface,
and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.
When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.
When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.
And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,
and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.
The first tercet introduces us to the haiku that will possess the poem, "the few words over and over" (3), though the haiku the speaker references is not described until the seventh tercet. Each subsequent tercet gives us new and wonderful images to digest, like a "small, perfect grape" (5). The third tercet, for example, simply and cleverly plays on the idea of leaves as letters and as the poet departing the room.
Phrases like "the big silence of the piano" (10) stop the senses, and the image of the speaker whispering into the "long white ears" of the dog (18) is moving. And then the turn on the speaker’s ideas about the haiku are dizzying. First, the speaker feels "the excruciating / pressure of the moth / on the surface of the iron bell" (22-24) in the haiku. Then, while looking out of the window, the speaker identifies with the moth resting on the bell as the world. While looking in a mirror, the speaker becomes "the heavy bell" (29). Finally, the speaker becomes the "tongue of the bell" (33), ringing his/her lover and the moth is moving like a spirit over the bed.
This relationship between speaker, moth, and bell is, in my opinion, a reflection on the reader and poetry. Our perspective when we read a poem informs which parts we most readily identify with. Collins’ Japan
, however, suggests something more than this. Our perspective informs what we initially ‘take’ from the poem, how we see the poem, but then, somehow, the poem begins to shape our perspective. The poem, listened to, said, and absorbed, becomes the way in which the reader sees the world, him/herself, and the lover. All of this expressed in direct, but simply beautiful and affecting, language. Raw material, simply expressed, and it lifts the hair up off the scalp; this is now a favourite poem.