Exercise One: Modeling Billy Collins

This exercise is a variation of an exercise I did in a workshop with the slam poet, Taylor Mali. Mali used the following poem by Billy Collins to frame a discussion about writing confessional poetry. We, too, will observe the confessional elements of Collins' poem, but we are going to break it up stanza by stanza to work out different ideas about how we can create a poem. Here's the first stanza of "The Lanyard":
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
Collins begins with an ordinary scene, even a boring scene. Yet, the specifics that he lifts from the scene keep the reader engaged, we are following these visual bread crumbs to wherever he is leading us. Finally, in the last line of the stanza, we get introduced to what we can assume will be the subject of the poem.

Step One
Start to describe a scene in your everyday life. Maybe it is the drive to work or an office meeting. Pick a time when you might allow your mind to wander. Once you decide on the scene, pick an object from that scene, any object. The object will be the catalyst for a broader thought, so try to pick one you've always wanted to know about (for me, I've always wanted to look up the history of the stapler - perhaps this is residual affinity left over from watching Office Space a dozen or so times). Be sure to write down your scene/setting and you object. That's it. Let's move on with the poem:
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past -
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
This next scene begins with an allusion to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past where an extended remembrance begins with the eating of a Madeline. It's a clever allusion, but it is not the focus of this stanza; it is merely the jumping off point. The focus is a continued discussion of the lanyard and how it has made him recall a memory that is decades old.

Step Two
Again, you'll only be writing down a couple of phrases or directions for yourself for this step. First, pick something you might want to make an allusion to, perhaps a novel or a television show or a favorite song. The allusion should work as a device that either causes you to reconsider your object or your scene or both. You do not have to jump to the past; you could just as easily daydream about the future or about moments closer in time - yesterday, tonight, etc. This is your next direction to yourself, after you have written down what you would like to allude to, pick a time frame that the allusion points you toward.

The next four stanzas continue Collins' theme. Notice how the lanyard itself fades into the background of a broader discussion about the relationship he had/has with his mother:
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy night

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift - not the archaic truth
Awesome stuff, right? Who could have guessed this was the direction he was going in. He started out with this completely mundane setting and all of a sudden launches his reader into this discussion about the relationships we have with our parents. A good childhood and a loving mother is, of course, not universal, but the poet is not concerned with "making it universal" by ways of using language that allows for doubt or argument. Remember, poems are not essays; you take a side and you allow the reader to agree with you or disagree with you as they please, but you do not try to please everyone (because, as it goes, you will end up pleasing no one). You should have an idea of how you can develop that scene and the following moment in your own poem, but down do it yet. Just write down a few ideas that can develop into two to four stanzas. Finally, notice how Collins sets up the reader for his moral by introducing "the archaic truth." Let's see what that is and determine how we can end our model.

Step Three
This poem ends with a clear moral and your poem should, too. Many writers shy away from this sort of "wrap up" at the end of a poem, but you really have to determine if it works for you or not. The only way you can do that is by trying it out. That's the thing about poetry - we have all of these "rules" but every single one of them have been broken over and over again by every generation of poets. Take a look at how Billy Collins breaks the rule about not ending with a moral to end his poem with a moral:
that you can never repay your mother.
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
The moral, then, takes us in another direction we are not expecting. We are expecting the sentimental - though he warned us at the end of the stanza before that it would not be "the archaic truth." What he gives us instead is a raw moment of self-realization, a recognition of the reprehensible selfishness and self-centeredness and cold confidence of a child before his parents. This, then, is our job in ending this model poem. Once we have established the mundane scene that leads to the object that leads to the protracted series of scenes or discussion about the topic, we tie it all up with a moral that is a little off from what our reader might expect.