Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“Nostalgia”

This is the first in a series of columns that feature one of my most-loved poems, often by a poet featured by the Poetry Foundation. Each of these poems is coupled with and a poem that speaks to, or resonates with, the first poem.

This week’s poem is “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins, written in 1991.

The Poetry Foundation 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.

Hear Billy Collins reading “Nostalgia,” on this link:

I can’t read “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins without giggling, starting with the first line. By using one of the oldest techniques in humor, hyperbole, 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, is “Tintern 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.”

— Kevin


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 I was running Poetry Center 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.

Here’s one of my poems that shares nostalgia, in this case for opera, and some of Billy Collins’ introspection. It’s one of the poems in The Sureness of Horses, the novel that is being serialized on US Represented. It’s in chapter six, the first of the narrator’s own poems that Wade reads to Diana.

Invitation to the Opera

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.

Next week: Jane Hirshfield’s “The Love of Aged Horses”