The Best Cigarette on archive.org (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 12 seconds
Reader: Billy Collins
The poem: I love Billy Collins. He's witty, charming, and, sadly, the only living poet I can name off the top of my head. Collins first came to my attention via an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion where his self-effacing humor stole the show. As a former poet laureate of the United States, he's achieved both popular and critical success.
This poem, from his Creative Commons licensed collection The Best Cigarette, is an example of why he's so well-known. The subject matter is approachable and recognizable: a neighbor's dog that won't stop barking. Collins takes the situation from commonplace to hilarious by trying to drown out the barking with a Beethoven record, but ends up imagining the dog as part of the symphony. He then transform the imagery from silly to profound by commenting on the critical response to his imaginary Barking Dog Solo. Rather than being just a joke, this poem ends up examining what makes art good and how the influence of cultural gatekeepers can make something seen as annoying in one context seem a work of genius in another.
The reader: I always get a kick out of listening to an author reading their own work. Some really put on a performance, others just try to read their work straight, allowing the words they wrote to be the centerpiece rather than their acting. Collins takes this second path, but that doesn't make the recording any less interesting. His staccato reading brings out the rhythms of the barking dog which aren't immediately apparent when the poem is read on the page. The recording is clear and crisp, being originally created for a commercial CD before Collins released it for free.
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