Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Candle Hat

This Tuesday, a poem I wish I'd written. . .


In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrandt looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
"Come in, " he would say, "I was just painting myself,"
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

Billy Collins


For more Tuesday Poems, visit the TP hub


  1. Claire,

    That's good alright. You should check out what our friend, Vesper, pilfered from the gods. I'm telling.

  2. Yes! My favourite poet! Thank you for posting this one.

  3. Oh - this image!! A simply astounding and perfect image of the creative person caught at the door... I wonder if the courier man sees candles when I break from writing to answer his impatient knock.

  4. Claire, I love this poem, too. It has always reminded me of my time in Sweden, when at the festival of St Lucia, shortly before Christmas, a young girl would wear a crown of candles into church, as part of the service.

  5. Hi John - lovely, isn't it...

    And yes, our dear friend Melissa has worked another miracle. 'Casualty' is an exceptional poem.

  6. Hi Belinda - I love rediscovering favourite poet's poems. I'd completely forgotten about this one till yesterday when it gave me goosebumps. There's a place for magic!

  7. Hi Mary --- I hope he does (your courier man) see candles when he comes knocking. Candles, sparks or fireworks. Anything with fire and light - even dust motes dancing! I love the idea of all of us wearing chandeliers as headgear when we work. Fortunately we can manufacture them out of thin air and don't have to try balancing wrought-iron, crystal and dripping wax on our heads?! L, C xx

  8. Helen - I'd not heard of this Swedish ritual before now. I will have to Google 'St. Lucia' to read more, I think. There's something about flame and candles that electric light cannot come close to in terms of atmosphere and, possibly, daring.

  9. Perhaps some day I can ask you to help me, as a non-poet, know where the lines are (and I hope this is not the questioning of a nitwit) for I found this so lovely, yet more accessibly prose-like. I am always affected by the Tuesday poems and it seems that the choice of forms is so varied...what is poetry, what is prose and how does one know? I should have learned this long ago but somehow I did not.

  10. Dear Marylinn -- thank you for raising these questions. I ponder similar ones.

    What it is that distinguishes poetry from prose and vice versa? I'm not sure I have an adequate answer 'in the moment', but one thought I have is this... might we say poetry is a distillation of prose;prose a form of poetic unfolding? When I write and read a poem, I am differently aware of things like breath, and timbre, the sound and shape of words and lines than I am when writing prose. Sometimes it's a simple matter of how the words are coaxed to sit on the page... ?

    I'd be interested to hear from other people on this subject. Perhaps this is something we could lift out of the comments box at some stage and engage in in a post 'proper'?

    It's interesting to me that you call yourself a 'non-poet' because your prose is some of the most poetic I have read in yonks! I wonder what would happen if you looked super-closely at one of the pieces you have written, selected a couple (even one) of your favourite lines and used that as a prompt for a poem? I have a hunch you'd find a poem right there, ready and waiting...

    L, C

  11. Claire, I would like very much to explore these distinctions more fully and will take your suggestion and see where it leads. I will let you know...it is clear to me that discovering who I think of as "the poets" has drawn me much closer to poetry. Thank you for saying that you find possibility in my prose.

  12. Marilynn,
    I had always assumed you WERE a poet. Even from some of your comments, I feel they are mini poems for me.
    I too have wondered what makes something a poem and if the two (prose and poetry) can ever work together. Who gets to decide? I think that's the beauty of it. Although I find more freedom in poetry than I do with prose. Prose can be very structured at times.

    There's also narrative poetry and novel through poems are popping up. It all seems very open. who knows. Maybe there are purists out there who think the two can't mix.

  13. Oh yes,i also love Billy Collins and have just read a couple of his which left a smile on my face.
    And yes Claire the shape of words and lines has a special effect in a poem,a good example was your
    "Thin ice'.

  14. Hi Marylinn - like Rachel, I've also thought of you as a poet. Perhaps being a 'poet' or 'prose writer' has more to do with ways of seeing than it does with the shape things take on the page? So saying, I would love to see what might happen if you were to deliberately 'craft' one of your idea threads into a poem. As I suggested yesterday, I imagine you'll find poems lining up for the taking! I'm thinking of throwing these questions open in a separate post - would you mind if I mentioned your question as the prompt? (I think a number of the Tuesday Poets would have lots to say on this subject?).

  15. Rachel, it's interesting to hear you say you find more freedom in poetry than in prose and that, for you, prose can be very structured. I wonder whether you mean this re; writing or reading? Or both? Some of my fiction writer friends say they find poetry-writing daunting, whereas for me, the challenge of conceiving (let alone writing!) a novel feels entirely 'whelming!

    Mind you, I do think a poem can contain every bit as much substance as a novel. Luckily there's room for both and more and for marriages between the two... As you say, it all seems very open. (And open is good!).

  16. Hi Richard - thank you. Lovely to hear you recall 'Thin Ice'. I tend to think of poetry 'as' image, as well as 'containing' image. The way words occupies the space of the page is akin to the composition of a painting - unique conversations strike up between the negative and positive shapes and spaces - not unlike the rests in a piece of music or the spaces between notes. Silence is as integral to sound as the 'landscape of the page' is to the words occupying it. (Does this make sense?)

    Billy Collins's poems are terrific - he creates worlds within worlds. (He makes me smile a lot, too! ; )

  17. I suppose I mean writing poetry feels more open to me than writing prose. I think reading it you (as a reader) are put into whatever "structure" the poet has given the poem - word choice, syntax, rhyme, punctuation. So you are following whatever 'structure' the poet has assigned or created in their poem.
    Writing a poem, for me, and believe me I have a bazillion things to learn on the subject - but what I feel so far is that if I want to change words around and syntax around that "grammar Nazis" would highly disapprove of in prose - in a poem I can do that. I don't feel like I'm subject to the same rules. I feel like rules in poetry are made to be broken.

    I heard a poet once say that she doesn't write prose simply because she doesn't have the attention span for it. I sort of feel the same way sometimes, although it's something I'd like to try.

    Poetry is all about feeling for me. It's about my truth. It originates in a selfish place, but becomes something more. Something triggers you to write - you don't know what you mean to say when you start, but by the end it is clear (or at least with a revision). I think that's the difference?
    I'd be interested to see what other poets say on the subject - certainly a learning process for me. And it always will be.
    I am very much trying to grow with it - trying to learn the rules so I know how to break them and make them my own.

  18. http://mary-mccallum.blogspot.com/2010/08/boxer-and-poem.html

    Dear Marylinn & Rachel... Mary McCallum has just written a wonderful post on the very subject we're talking about. Enjoy. X