Cartoons and PoetrySEPTEMBER 20, 2008
- Billy Collins
- (Barbi Reed)
- View the Slideshow
- Looney Tunes - What's Opera Doc?
- Looney Tunes - Duck Amuck
As a kid, Saturday morning meant one thing: cartoons. Remember that quiet time just after sunrise, when your parents were still asleep? You'd wake up early, maybe pour yourself a bowl of cereal, turn on the tube, and get lost in a universe of the implausible.Billy Collins remembers. His Saturday mornings were flooded with the Looney Toons characters of Warner Brothers. And before he was twice appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, before he'd won awards and written volumes of poetry, Billy Collins was just a boy sitting in front of a black-and-white TV.
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Billy Collins: You know, if you break it down on the black board, this whole thing about influence, you could say that there are direct influences, and those are the ones that come direct from your own genre. So if you're a novelist, you're influenced by other novelists; if you're a painter, you're influenced by other painters.
And then, perhaps more interesting, are indirect influences, which have nothing to do with the fact that you're a painter or a writer, but come from something outside your own genre.
Maybe the indirect influences are more benign. Because the direct influences, as a poet, are always accompanied by jealousy. You know, you could even substitute the word "jealousy" for literary influence. "Literary influence" is what the professors call it in the classroom, but actually the emotional experience of it is envy. Writers would not be moved to emulation unless they were envious of previous writers. So the little propeller that drives creative work - you can't see it because it's under the water - the little propeller is jealousy. And that's what keeps the arts moving. But don't tell anybody!
The opening theme to "Looney Tunes Merrie Melodies" cartoons is kind of like "The Star-Spangled Banner" for a lot of children of my generation. You'd hear those opening notes, and the glockenspiel kind of cuts in there, adding some extra zaniness. You would be brought to full attention because you knew you'd be treated by this world of animation that was so delightful, and so different from the normal world in which you were plodding around as a kid, scraping your knees and getting into all sorts of trouble.
Poetry for me offers the highest degree of imaginative freedom of any genre of writing. Certainly poetry is not bound to the kinds of laws that guide traditional fiction, such as chronology, plausibility, character development. You can't just have characters streaming in and out of the novel. But in poetry, you are free to jump around in time and space; you are free to slip from one dimension to another.
You know, all the characters bring out various sides to us. Daffy Duck is sort of the manic, blabbering, fearless one. Bugs Bunny is the clever, ironic, sardonic, wry, foxy, outwitting one. And Porky's a little pathetic. He's the only one who's actually married--if that's the state that these characters are in. He's the only one with a life partner, let's put it that way: Petunia, who tends to be a nag. Strangely, there's only one human in this whole thing, which is Elmer Fudd.
My influences now are coming from all different sides. I find that I'm drifting away from subject matter.
There's a satiric element to those cartoons. They were knocking pretension: the waiter in the French restaurant; the handsome bullfighter who takes himself very seriously; the morbid undertaker. All you need is Bugs Bunny to appear on the scene, and everything changes.
There he leans:
biting his bright orange carrot
bugging the world
and master of disguise
he is everywhere at once
and spectacularly eared
he is armed with dynamite
he is the only one
who really knows what's up.
when he is gardening alone
far from conversation
and the terrible stammering
far from Petunia, nag and tease
just resting on a hoe
as he contemplates
the blue background of his flat world --
a Zen pig.
He tears across the landscape, blabbering
in lunatic flight
from those who would
pluck his jet feathers
wring the stem of his neck
twist his yellow beak
flatten him under steamrollers
his brain is a gumball and with it
he tears across the landscape, haywire
jabbering and amok
outdistancing clouds of dust.
The mailbox in front of the neat cottage
spells out the unfortunate name.
This morning the homebody
is singing in his sunny kitchen
for the tea water to boil.
Later he will have his nap,
the enormous pink head
rolling on the pillow
dreaming again of the wabbit,
the private carrot patch.
Waiting by his bed
is the shotgun and the ridiculous hat
for he is the human.
Poems originally appeared in a 1977 chapbook, "Porkface."More stories from our Poetry Radio Project series