A Litany of Images

by Olivia Zhu

I wrote a few months ago on May Swenson’s “Untitled,” a love poem filled with the rain of many, many beautiful images. “You have found my root you are the rain,” she says. Today, I found myself caught in a rainstorm, took shelter under a tree, but it came with such a different kind of a feeling that even though my mind went back to Swenson, it seems more fitting to go somewhere new.

Billy Collins’ “Litany” is another poem that’s similar in its saturated nature, where almost every line includes a new metaphor. However, Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, takes a different tack in producing his list of comparisons for his lover. Unlike Jacques Crickillon, whose lines are cited briefly in the epigraph of “Litany,” Collins does not take himself so seriously, and a slightly mocking tone is present throughout his work—a tone that makes it a bit hard to take him seriously while reading the poem, to be perfectly honest. A video of him reading invites friendly laughter from the audience as well:

Even the title of the poem is irreverent: litany can refer to either types of religious prayers involving petitions or to a long and tedious listing of items. Either seems to fit, as Collins may very well be petitioning his lover with his plaintive and sometimes appeasing comparisons or demonstrating to the reader that a recitation of several metaphors in a row is an overused and ineffective poetic technique.

The very first stanza of “Litany” draws directly from Crickillon’s poem, comparing the poet’s beloved to quotidian and sometimes beautiful objects. It is flattering and serves as an example of typical usage of metaphors in love poems; the person is described as “the dew on the morning grass / and the burning wheel of the sun,” in reference to beauty, radiance, and all that is lovely about the natural world (3-4). In particular, the first two lines take on additional meaning because they have been borrowed and because they occur at the conclusion of the work. Says Collins’ speaker to his beloved, “You are the bread and the knife / the crystal goblet and the wine” (1-2). The images, all of comestibles and tableware, are clearly of the household, reducing the addressed person to a symbol of home and its comforts. There appears to be a special emphasis on the kitchen, in fact, as the speaker also says “You are the white apron of the baker,” in another suggestion that his beloved reminds him of not only the “marsh birds” and the rest of the natural world outside, but also of the warmth of a household (5, 6). All of the metaphors selected are not too far out of the norm, and the poem thus far appears to be standard: it is complimentary and loving. What is important to keep in mind throughout the poem, however, is the fact that these metaphors do little to create more than a skeleton of a depiction of the addressee—it is difficult to visualize exactly what she might look like and be like, and the metaphors are thereby rendered impotent.

Beginning from the second stanza, these notions are turned back: it is the first indication that “Litany” is not quite a traditional love poem. Following the list of metaphors, there is a forbidding “However,” followed by a list of what the speaker’s lover is not. Thus, Collins begins his satire of all poetry that is overly dependent on metaphor. Instead of continuing with his comparisons, he shifts moods; instead of flattery, he addresses his lover sternly: “And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. / There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air” (10-11). The repetition crystallizes the speaker’s conviction that his lover does not smell as lovely like pine-scented air, making it all the more unromantic. There are few who might dare to say their paramour is not as fragrant as a flower. In the next stanza, he makes a slight concession that his companion might be “the fish under the bridge” and “maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head” (12-13). Neither image is ideal: Collins seems to be comparing his loved one to a cold, unfeeling fish and a dun, unattractive bird sitting on a statue of someone far more important—and these objects represent best case scenarios, for the addressee is “not even close / to being the field of cornflowers at dusk,” a picture far more pleasing to the average person (14-15). The speaker then shifts and probes deeper, insinuating that his beloved may not even be attractive, for “a quick look in the mirror will show” that his addressee is neither a pair of useful boots or boat, personified as sleeping and content (16-18). Against tradition, Collins pokes fun at poems focused on beauty, with women being described as having golden hair, starry eyes, and rose-red lips.

It is toward the end of the poem, as the poet describes himself, when it is made most clear that Collins is re-imagining familiar metaphor-heavy poetry even as he displays his own tenderness. He writes that, as he is “speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,” he has selected certain traits for himself (20). Instead of selecting overtly boastful or modest traits, as a more traditional poet might, he selects that which is everyday: he is “the sound of rain on the roof,” something calming yet quite common (21). It is an image that is heartfelt, for one could imagine Collins thinking of all the metaphors available to him and attempting to pick the one that is accurate and appealing, just so he can best present himself to his lover who he has praised and now slightly insulted. The criticism relates to choosing trite and stock images, some of which are included in the rest of the poet’s own self-description. These are not, perhaps, his first choice: he is “also” represented by things such as “the shooting star” or “the moon in the trees,” but the first image of rain on a roof is the most important—just as his lover’s first comparison to “the bread and the knife” becomes the one that dominates descriptions of her through the poem and is the one repeated the most frequently (22, 25, 1). Additional images are more transient and matter less, though they may represent aspects of the speaker’s personality or physicality; instead, they serve as more examples in the list of metaphors Collins builds up.

The close of the poem combines Collins’ commentary on metaphor-reliant poems and his address to his beloved. He brings the reader back to the initial image by repeating it at the end, with the reader no more enlightened as to what the two items could represent. At the conclusion of everything, the metaphors have not revealed much about the two individuals; rather, it is the speaker’s tone that is the most revealing. The phrases that do not include metaphors are the ones that best convey how he speaks to his beloved, as well as how she reacts. After the long litany of what she is not—undoubtedly meant to be insulting—he consoles her, telling her: “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” (27-30). He reassures her, repeating the same phrase over and over, in a sort of petition that she forgive him—a reference to the more spiritual aspect of “Litany’s” title. There is tenderness in his comforting, as he seems to be explaining that, though he has described her with the most mundane of objects, she is special to him. When Collins writes that his lover is “somehow” the wine, there is a sense of wonder in his tone, and the poet brings the poem to a conclusion that is loving and romantic using phrasing and repetition, not ornate and clichéd imagery.

Both “Untitled” and “Litany” are replete with metaphors, and the poets employ the comparisons to describe themselves and their loved ones to varying effect and for disparate purposes. Where “Untitled” effectively uses the literary device to depict two individuals growing closer and more passionate, “Litany” mocks excessive use of metaphor. Where Swenson’s speaker is consistent in her desire for her lover and the dynamics of the relationship are fairly constant, the poetic voice of “Litany” is at times loving, abrasive, disparaging, and comforting. The set of love poems that are largely dominated by metaphor runs the gamut of human emotions, storylines, and conclusions, and do indeed reflect the “plentiful imagery of the world”—but, having so recently been around rain dripping to the roots of great trees, hearing the sound of rain on the roof, would you blame me for partiality to these two images in particular?