Thursday 14 December 2017

Billy Collins? Well the name certainly rings a bell

he Basiani Ensemble from Georgia were serenading six year old Elsa Marhuenda from Spain in the gardens of Kilkenny Castle to mark the opening day of the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Pat Moore.
he Basiani Ensemble from Georgia were serenading six year old Elsa Marhuenda from Spain in the gardens of Kilkenny Castle to mark the opening day of the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2014. Photo: Pat Moore.

John Masterson

Some years ago I sat with some friends talking about our favourite films. And, as happens in those conversations, there is a lot of not being able to remember the names of actors.

Such conversations used to go on for hours and be punctuated with someone finally remembering all of Hannah's Sisters or the last one of the Magnificent Seven.  These days they are quieter affairs as the answers are never more that a smart phone away. I am not at all sure this is an improvement.

We all have odd things we can never remember. If I am asked who starred in Absolutely Fabulous I will instantly reply Joanna Lumley, and then . . . blank. It just won't come. I have to go the circuitous route of 'French and........' to make my way to Jennifer Saunders. Perhaps some Jennifer did something awful to me in my youth but, if that is the case, I have successfully repressed it.

We all know that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. William James mentioned it in one of the first psychology books ever written. We used to be tortured by feeling that we know the first letter, or the number of syllables. Armed with phones we no longer have to wait.

During a lull in the film conversation, when we are all probably on Google, a woman in the company began to recite a poem. It begins "The name of the author is the first to go, followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion........" It continues with insightful observations that we all recognise. It is called Forgetfulness and is by American poet Billy Collins. I keep it in my wallet, well phone actually, because of, well, forgetfulness. The page is headed Billy Collins.

That was some years ago and I have read that page many times since. Fast forward to Kilkenny Arts Festival of 2014 and I am glancing through the programme with a friend over lunch. We are having one of those 'forget people's names' conversations that we have most weeks. He tells me he is going to a poetry reading by someone called Billy Collins and asks do I know anything about him. Apparently he is brilliant, he added. I am not a great one for poetry so I had probably switched off half way through his question. "It rings a distant bell," I replied. And no. I couldn't go - had something on that night.

The bookshops in Kilkenny are very diligent about making sure authors who are in the city are in the bookshops in prominent positions. I was idly rummaging through some books when I picked up Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes by the same Billy Collins. The first few poems made me smile. I liked this guy and was sorry I had missed him. And then on page 34 I came to Forgetfulness. By Billy Collins! That I have carried with me for years.

I hope he reads this. I think he might get another verse out of my experience. And if he is ever in these parts again, could someone remind me, please.

Sunday Independent

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