Analysis of the Poem "Litany" by Billy Collins
Billy Collins and Litany
Litany is a poem inspired by the first two lines of another poem written by Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon. Billy Collins expands on the epigraph, the theme being praise for a lover (or loved one) using comparative metaphors.
A litany is a repetitive series of statements often associated with christian ritual, where call and response - of priest and congregation - results in a sequence of formal dialogue.
Generally speaking a litany is a list, usually related to complaints. In the poem this becomes a set of repetitive lines that praise and flatter a loved one, that amuse and puzzle, the speaker waxing lyrical with metaphors of the ordinary and extraordinary.
The poem also gives a nod to a Shakespeare sonnet, number 130, which has the opening lines:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips red;
Litany is a typical Billy Collins poem in that it is readily accessible, uses simple language and has a light-hearted yet profound message of humanity. His poetry entertains in a comfortable way which is why he is so popular with a wide-ranging audience of readers.
In the poet's own words:
“I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.'
When he first started to write poetry his inspiration came from poets such as Hart Crane, a challenging enough name for sure. Collins wrote and wrote but didn't find his true voice until he left behind what he thought of as coded language and began to pen more uncomplicated poems.
His poetry is:
'suburban, it's domestic, it's middle class, and it's sort of unashamedly that.'
It can also be dark and quirky, seem transparent and yet hold wisdom at the same time. Readers remark on the flow of language, the ease with which his lines satisfy and nourish.
Litany is one such poem, first published in the book Nine Horses in 2002.
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.
Analysis of Litany
Litany is a kind of love poem, a series of metaphorical comparisons between the speaker, the first person 'I', and another, which could be a lover, wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, loved one, friend, mate, buddy, a deity, even a pet, and so on and so on.
The tone is rather ambiguous. Is the speaker meant to be serious or tongue in cheek? Is there a hint of sardonic mischief? Or is it pure unadulterated praise, in disguise?
Reading through this poem several times the conclusion is that, yes ok, it's not the most musically worded poem, it's not structured around complex syntax, it hasn't a great deal of phonetic texture; it could be prose simply chopped up and offered as a poem.
What it does have is clear accessibility. It fits together as it should and doesn't attempt to be anything other than what it is - a humble, playful and romantic lyric that contains everyday imagery, with a little bit of magic thrown in.
Analysis of Litany - Stanza by Stanza
Litany begins with what could be a religious epigraph written by another poet, one Jacques Crickillon from Belgium, two lines that echo christian ritual. Yet, as the poem progresses the reader soon learns that this is no church litany, it is a tribute to a loved one.
The speaker is clearly addressing someone special...You are, repeated three times, which points to someone emotionally close. And the metaphors relate a wholesome, vital relationship between the two people. Bread, wine, dew, sun - all are needed for life itself.
The first romantic metaphor - birds in flight, suddenly - introduces an element of uncertainty.
The speaker has opened up in the first stanza and now already feels a need to state what this 'other' is not, as if to counteract and redress the balance. It's as if the speaker is fine tuning what this person is not by introducing the wind, plums and playing cards.
Is there some connection or are these things plucked at random out of the air? The pine-scented air, which according to the speaker, this 'other' is certainly not.
Could it be that the speaker is on a walk through a suburban area, thinking about this person in terms of what he sees when he stops to take stock?
Is the speaker in a park? There are fish, there's a pigeon - perhaps the fish are slippery, or relaxed in the shadow of the bridge? What about that pigeon on a statue's head (presumably it is not sitting on a real general's head) which suggests a comic side to this other person?
One thing the reader definitely knows from this stanza: cornflowers at dusk - creating dusky blue - are far away from being the other person.
Back inside, someone is looking in the mirror, deciding that there's no comparison with boots and boat, dirty or awake, a pair kicked off after the walk.
Somehow connected with the last stanza through a full rhyme: show/know, which could be pure accident because this poem is in free verse and doesn't entertain rhyme or consciously patterned meter (metre in British English).
- But this is the turning point of the poem. The speaker addresses this other person (or entity) directly and declares himself subject to metaphor. He is the sound of the rain on the roof...not the rain itself. This suggests what? That he lacks emotion? That he is a mere effect?
The reader is taken up into the evening sky. A shooting star is an asteroid that is burning up as it enters the earth's atmosphere, giving off the familiar flash of silvery yellow. Is the speaker implying that he is burning up? Or is he burning with desire?
In complete contrast he is also someone's discarded newspaper being blown through the dust. And he's homely too, being chestnuts ready for eating in the kitchen. So, he's edible, hot but sometimes feels like news going nowhere.
In other words, the speaker is a complicated person, just like many other moderns, who are many things to the many different people they encounter in their lives.
The metaphors are coming thick and fast. Now he is the moon, which is a feminine symbol (to counterbalance the wheel of the sun?), and also the cup from which a blind woman drinks, presumably.
- This is perhaps the most poignant image in the poem and brings an odd twist to proceedings. It's a fascinating metaphor - a blind woman's tea cup - for who among us has this specific visual in their database?
To round things off, there is a repeat of the initial opening lines, but reinforcing the idea that this other person holds the key to life, is the speaker's life, always will be.
Litany is a free verse poem of 7 stanzas, a total of 30 lines, so there is no set rhyme scheme or regular metric pattern.
- However, the poem does have frequent anapaests (anapests), a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed, which brings a certain rising rhythm to a line.
You are / the bread / and the knife, (trochee + iamb + anapest)
and the bur / ning wheel / of the sun. (anapest + iamb + anapest)
Notice the different rhythm of each line (lines 1 and 4) - the two anapests in line four particularly cause dips and rises as the voice negotiates the syllables.
And another example:
I am / also / the moon / in the trees (trochee x2 + iamb + anapest)
There are some examples of alliterative phrases in certain lines:
rain on the roof.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey