Last week, I gave my Composition students an assignment related to poem “Tensions,” by the Modern Master, Billy Collins. Not familiar with the poem? Here it is, with the all-important opening epigram…
“Tensions,” Billy Collins
“Never use the word ‘suddenly’ just to create tension.”
— Writing Fiction
Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.
When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.
A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen
where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.
I observed a window of leafy activity
and, beyond that, a bird perched on the edge
of the stone birdbath
when suddenly you announced you were leaving
to pick up a few things at the market
and I stunned you by impulsively
pointing out that we were getting low on butter
and another case of wine would not be a bad idea.
Who could tell what the next moment would hold?
Another drip from the faucet?
Another little spasm of the second hand?
Would the painting of a bowl of pears continue
to hang on the wall from that nail?
Would the heavy anthologies remain on their shelves?
Would the stove hold its position?
Suddenly, it was anyone’s guess.
The sun rose ever higher.
The state capitals remained motionless on the wall map
when suddenly I found myself lying on a couch
where I closed my eyes and without any warning
began to picture the Andes, of all places,
and a path that led over the mountain to another country
with strange customs and eye-catching hats
suddenly fringed with little colorful, dangling balls.
You can see a video of him reading the poem here. (In this reading, however, he inexplicably changes “dangling balls” at the end to “dangling tassels.” Perhaps he read the audience and figured they couldn’t handle a poem that ends with “dangling balls”?)
I don’t know if I’d call this “quintessential,” but it definitely has everything I want in a Billy Collins poem. First, it’s funny. (Best part: the pause in between “suddenly you announced you were leaving” and “to pick up a few things at the market.” Probably the most effective use of a line break in any poem ever.)
Next, it’s accessible: I bet even my dad could get this poem. But there’s also more going on than just the obvious humor: the stanza that begins “Who could tell what the next moment would hold?” really gives a whole new dimension to the poem. Think about it: we all just accept that, for example, the painting of the bowl of pears won’t tumble off the wall, but really every single second is the possibility for something extraordinary to happen. Maybe something extraordinarily good, maybe something extraordinarily good– but something. Of course, more than likely, it won’t. But the point is, your life can change quite…well, suddenly. And I think the poem, once you dig just underneath the humor, does a great job reminding us of that.
(As an aside: I have often compared to Billy Collins to Norman Rockwell; like all the greatest of Rockwell’s prints, Collins’s poems are relatively easy to understand– accessible, as I said– but deceptively so; there’s always a larger story going on.)
According to Collins, he was inspired to write this poem after perusing through a “how to” book called Writing Fiction. He found a particular nugget of advice– “Never use the word ‘suddenly’ just to create tension”– and decided to have a little fun with it.
And that bit of inspiration in turn inspired the assignment I gave to my students: Identify a rule of writing (and there are a lot of ’em), and use that as the basis for an original poem. I may even try to do the assignment myself. And maybe you in cyberland can do the same.
That’s right: I first give this assignment to my students. And then, SUDDENLY, I pass it on to you!