“Nostalgia,” “To His Coy Mistress,” and “Invitation to the Opera.”

This is part of a series of columns that feature a most-loved poem. Each of these poems is coupled with and a poem or two that speak to, or resonate with, the first poem. This week’s poem is “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins, written in 1991. The two other poems are “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell and my own “Invitation to the Opera.”

Collins’ poem is my personal favorite. The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Billy Collins is available at Poetry Foundation: Billy Collins. In part it states Billy Collins was “dubbed ‘the most popular poet in America’ by Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Billy Collins is famous for conversational, witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the everyday, reading and writing, and poetry itself.” He served two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003.

I can’t read “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins without giggling, starting with the first line. Using hyperbole, one of the oldest techniques in humor, Billy knocks the reader off his or her pins in the first three words, “Remember the 1340s?”

No, Billy, we may get nostalgic for the 1960s, but to take us back to 1340 makes us giggle. The poem that Billy wryly calls out for 1790, available on this link, is “Tinturn Abbey” by William Wordsworth.

Collins continues with his dry hyperbole until my favorite line, perfect in its absurdity: “Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.”


by Billy Collins

Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.

The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

I was lucky to have lunch with Billy when he visited San Jose. The subtle humor of his work cast its spell on me along with the rest of America. If Billy Collins brought one thing to the poetry world it would be “accessibility.” People can bring their neighbors, even the ones who say they hate poetry, to one of his readings and they may leave with smiles on their faces. Hear him read the poem on this link: Billy Collins reads “Nostalgia”

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The first poem that resonates with Collins’s poem is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” written around 1649. The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Andrew Marvell is available at Poetry Foundation: Andrew Marvell. He is a poet whose reputation has grown through the ages: In part it states: “It was only in the nineteenth century that his lyrical poems began to attract serious attention, and it was not until T. S. Eliot’s classic essay (first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 31 March 1921), marking the tercentenary of Marvell’s birth, that Marvell attained recognition as one of the major lyric poets of his age.”

To His Coy Mistress

By Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Hear the poem “To His Coy Mistress” read aloud.

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The second poem that shares Billy Collins’ nostalgia, in this case for opera, and some of his introspection, is one of my own, “Invitation to the Opera.” It’s the first of the narrator’s own poems in the novel that is being serialized on this site.

Invitation to the Opera

by Kevin Arnold

When one comes, along with fundraising letters
from my daughter’s pricey college, small magazines
that published my work—magazines I keep renewing
but seldom find time to read—even gold-embossed
credit-card offerings to my ex-wife, it’s
the opera invite I can’t throw away.

It would be so good for the kids if I could
get them to go. Should I subscribe or just pick
one or two? Perhaps start with a familiar name:
La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, Aida, or Carmen.
Or how about these colorful ads for the kickier ones:
The Death of Klinghoffer or Nixon in China
—any show that puts the stars in tails and flowing gowns—
I’ll be there, part of the audience as the lights dim.
Imagine me in that heart-stopping quiet
just before the songs echo into the night.

Here’s a YouTube of my reading “Invitation to the Opera”

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