Sunday, February 24, 2013


Looking at my last post, Things That Slip Away in Time, I can see that I'm rather preoccupied these days with the subject of time — its nature, how it defines us at various stages of life, how the past shapes the future, how the past appears from the vantage point of the present.  Perhaps these are just idle thoughts on an idle Sunday afternoon, but they are the kind of thoughts that send me to the poetry of Billy Collins, for whom time seems to be a constant theme.

In particular, I have just reread the fine poem, Aristotle.  According to Collins, the inspiration for this poem arose upon reading Aristotle's Poetics, wherein the philosopher first articulated a principle that is now taken from granted by virtually everyone, specifically, that every literary work has three parts:  a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  As I read the poem, however, Collins is speaking not only of literary works, but also of life itself.  Indeed, what is life if not a beginning, where "almost anything can happen," followed by a middle, where "nothing is simple anymore," followed by an end, "where everything comes down to the destination we cannot help imagining . . . "? 


                                               by Billy Collins

                    This is the beginning.
                    Almost anything can happen.
                    This is where you find
                    the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
                    the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
                    Think of an egg, the letter A,
                    a woman ironing on a bare stage
                    as the heavy curtain rises.
                    This is the very beginning.
                    The first-person narrator introduces himself,
                    tells us about his lineage.
                    The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
                    Here the climbers are studying a map
                    or pulling on their long woolen socks.
                    This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
                    The profile of an animal is being smeared
                    on the wall of a cave,
                    and you have not yet learned to crawl.
                    This is the opening, the gambit,
                    a pawn moving forward an inch.
                    This is your first night with her,
                    your first night without her.
                    This is the first part
                    where the wheels begin to turn,
                    where the elevator begins its ascent,
                    before the doors lurch apart.

                    This is the middle.
                    Things have had time to get complicated,
                    messy, really.  Nothing is simple anymore.
                    Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
                    teeming with people at cross-purposes—
                    a million schemes, a million wild looks.
                    Disappointment unshoulders its knapsack
                    here and pitches his ragged tent.
                    This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
                    where the action suddenly reverses
                    or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
                    Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
                    to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
                    Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
                    Here the aria rises to a pitch,
                    a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
                    And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
                    halfway up the mountain.
                    This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
                    This is the thick of things.
                    So much is crowded into the middle—
                    the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
                    Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
                    lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
                    too much to name, too much to think about.

                    And this is the end,
                    the car running out of road,
                    the river losing its name in an ocean,
                    the long nose of the photographed horse
                    touching the white electronic line.
                    This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
                    the empty wheelchair,
                    and pigeons floating down in the evening.
                    Here the stage is littered with bodies,
                    the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
                    and the climbers are in their graves.
                    It is me hitting the period
                    and you closing the book.
                    It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
                    and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
                    This is the final bit
                    thinning away to nothing.
                    This is the end, according to Aristotle,
                    what we have all been waiting for,
                    what everything comes down to,
                    the destination we cannot help imagining,
                    a streak of light in the sky,
                    a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

"Aristotle" from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), by Billy Collins.


  1. I enjoyed this, and was reminded of the 'All the world's a stage" monologue in 'As You Like It'.

    1. Yes, you're absolutely right about the parallels. I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it. Shakespeare, of course, was a little less euphemistic in concluding that the end comes "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

  2. This provocative post and poem only increase the intensity of ruminations I am experiencing at the moment, which is good, because I need to get thoughts down. Each of our own plays (to take your and Robert's comments further) is unique, with its own particulars. What strikes me at the moment in my own process is how my late-middle/early-end seems so like a beginning.

    1. While I liked the poem, Ruth, and think there are clear parallels in terms of its general applicability to both literary works and life, I don't think for a moment that there is only one beginning, one middle, and one ending. I'm actually at the other extreme, for I believe that birth, death, and resurrection can occur many times in the course of a single day. It's only in retrospect that we have enough information to categorize the years as neatly as Collins has in the poem. The poem is great fun for me, nonetheless, because I smile in recognition at the naive assumptions we make in youth, the vexing challenges we face in middle age, and the painful losses we will surely accumulate in the third and final act.

  3. It is interesting George how we move from one stage in our lives to the next, imperceptibly - not sure that we can ever put a line under a stage, but suddenly one gets to 'the end' with no idea how long or short it will be, but absolutely certain that it is the end. In some ways it is a relief - maybe relief that one has navigated one's way through stormy waters and survived, not necessarily unscathed, but relatively unharmed and that what is to come is inevitable but can be approached through happiness and acceptance. I am so enjoying my eighties George - I can thoroughly recommend it.

    1. Yes, Pat, I agree entirely that the various stages of life are too complex in most cases to be clearly delineated. That said, I think Collins is generally on point in suggesting that the trajectory of life takes us through a beginning, when anything seems possible, a middle period, when we are disabused of our youthful assumptions, and a final period in which we must learn to accept that there is very little in life, with the possible exception of our attitude, over which we have any real control. And speaking of attitude, you have one of the best, and it's heartening to have you recommend the eighties. At the moment, however, I still have to find out how the navigate through the seventies.

  4. There is not one of us who can avoid treading the route; we are destined to begin, trudge the middle and arrive at the end.
    And then? Does time go on? How could it, without us being there to observe it?

    This is a wonderful poem.

    1. As they say, Friko, every end is a beginning. Who knows? I think the best we can do is stay on the path and accept whatever comes our way, with or without time. By the way, I seem to recall that Einstein once suggested that time is really a convenient fiction created by mankind, and that it may not really exist in a larger cosmic sense.

  5. Your post reminded me that I recently read somewhere the claim that Australian aborigine culture simply didn't think of time as we do - in it, every moment is the moment of creation. It left me thinking I wanted to find a lot more out about dreamtime. I suspect it might cast some light on the completely different assumptions (to our own) that humans carried round with them thousands and thousands of years ago.

    1. If you haven't read it, Dominic, you might be interested in "The Songlines," by Bruce Chatwin. I'm totally in sync with this notion that "every moment is the moment of creation." How liberating it would be to feel — perhaps not just feel, but know in the depths of one's being — that one's life is created anew every day. The past always carries a whiff of staleness.

  6. Heips George,
    you have very interesting and lovely images here.
    Greetings from Finland, middle of snow.

  7. Thanks so much for your lovely comments, Orvokki. What a pleasure it is to have a visitor from Finland! I've been to your country and love it very much. I've also checked out your website, and I like your images as well. Hope you will stop by again. Have a nice day!

  8. I like ruminations on time. Today I came across the notion of Distant Time, explained thus: all things human and natural go back to a time so remote that no one can explain or understand how long ago it really was. However ancient this time may be, its events are recounted accurately and in great detail through a prodigious number of stories.

    Beginning, middle, end - we can never know which is which, it's all in flux and kind of muddled until we try to separate one strand of events from the whole. A snapshot that we think is the entirety.

    At the same time (ha!) every day is highly regulated by such moments.

    Some years ago (ha!) (meaning a billion and a half webpages ago) I think I came across a news report that told of how some monks had discovered how many seconds were in a moment. Or how many moments were in a minute. Or...?



    1. As you can see, Wendy, I received your first comment. I agree with you that time is not as easily categorized as the poem might suggest. As we all know, every ending had a beginning, every beginning bears the seeds of its destruction, and we are always in the middle of something.

  9. I "happened" upon your blog when I was doing a search for "zen-like quote from marcus aurelius" for a piece I'm working on.

    "Enchanted April" is my favorite movie. "Meditations" is my book of wisdom. I live in Asheville. I am a writer, blogger, traveler, photographer and artist and have found your wonderful blog!

    Thank you so much for sharing your world with us!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and generous comments, Rhonda. I haven't posted very much in the past few months because I've been in the process of selling a house, buying a house, and moving to the Greenville, SC area, just about an hour or so from the Asheville area. Stay tuned — I will be posting more frequently in the future. During the meantime, I will get over and check out you own blog.