Billy’s Rain: How One Book Changed My Outlook on Poetry

Hugo Williams might be my favorite modern poet. I keep a copy of Billy’s Rain close by my writing desk, and I never hesitate to consult it, whether I’m looking for inspiration or for pleasure. It’s actually a funny story how I ended up with the book, and how it came to form such an important part of my library.

I touched on this in last week’s post “Notes on Productivity and Procrastination”; I had trouble getting inspired at school. I was always more interested in reading the books I bought for myself on the weekends than the ones assigned to me in class. I could never get disciplined enough to read them, and it reached a point where I just sort of accepted it and stopped buying the assigned reading altogether as a matter of course. I know, I was a twat (see, I admit it so it’s okay!). In my time spent at school, college, and two universities, I never once read a full length book that was assigned to me. I tried sometimes, but I could never concentrate. I had the attention span of a newborn pug at a Polka Dance.

In my third year of university, after giving up any idea of becoming a poet and thinking instead that my best bet was with fiction or screenwriting, I ended up taking a class in poetry writing largely because of my disinterest in the other options. I think it was called Modern Poetic Writing or something like that. Anyway, the class was being taught by my favorite professor and I figured I would give it a go for a semester. At first my expectations were low; the reading list was set, I didn’t buy any of the books, and I had to do the embarrassing routine every week of searching through my bag and going “Well, I must have left the blasted thing at home”. I would have felt less guilty if it weren’t my favorite professor I was deceiving. But there was always some kind person that let me share their copy. The theme was decided to be Confessional Poetry. We started with Robert Lowell (whom I have also since come to appreciate), and then moved on to Williams.

I remember being in a sort of haze one day, thinking about something far removed from the room I was in. It could have been anything. At the time I was mutilating the same short story every week to please another professor (only for the original version to get published as a winning entry of a competition months later), just getting hooked on The Walking Dead, and I had a Skype date where I was set to be introduced to my best mate’s girlfriend- a larger than life personality I was sure I was going to disappoint (she’s now my BFF). All this was on my mind and I was really just trying to get by with my classes and stay afloat. Then, I remember being suddenly snapped awake by my professor’s reading of “Blindfold Games” from Billy’s Rain. I was all of a sudden existing in the present. I was captivated by the words. Something about it just seemed to ring true. The feeling I got, listening to that reading, was of being inside someone’s head, seeing out of their eyes and feeling what they felt. Jealousy. Plain and simple. That was the theme of the poem, and in a very simple yet very profound way it resonated. I wasn’t particularly infatuated with any one lady at that point in my life, but it nevertheless seemed like such a universal and timeless part of the male psyche that was being communicated through that poem. Perhaps at some point I would feel about a girl the way that narrator did, I thought.

The book as a whole chronicles a love affair, which ends, and the aftermath of it. You can read the book like a novel, from front to back, if you want. As you get further into the book, you see William’s emotions and anxieties laid bare, as he goes from being the recipient of this woman’s affections to an observer of it. “Blindfold Games” is, roughly speaking, in the middle of the book, and details the narrator imagining his ex-lover going off to bed and making love to her new boyfriend. There’s just something very human and engaging about the narrator’s insecurities, and something very male about his keen interest in her sharing the intimacy that was once his, with someone else. I read an article a while back, which reported on a scientific study that examined the different ways men and women recover from the breakup of a relationship. The study found that women, at some point, are better equipped at putting it behind them, whereas men- even if they do find a new partner- will be troubled with it for the rest of their lives. I’ll put a link to the article below in case you are interested.

Anyway, you want to know how the story ends, no? I couldn’t get the poems of Hugo Williams out of my head, and “Blindfold Games” in particular. I wanted to write poems like that. During that semester I fell in love with poetry again, and it was all down to that class I almost didn’t take, and that book I never bought. My entire outlook on the genre had changed forever. I started to write poems that could be described as “Confessional” en masse, and I was extremely excited about the end of semester assignment where we had to produce our own portfolio of poems. My confidence soared in my ability not only to write poems, but to share them as well. I was always the last person to contribute in class, and I tried to get out of it any way I could- even if it meant skipping. But I reached inside of myself, the way Lowell and Williams had, and wrote this personal poem about being sad and lonely one time during an intramural soccer game at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The response I got from my fellow writers was great, and one girl even said it tugged at her heart strings. My professor said in a private chat that I was finding my voice as a poet.

The poems stayed in my head long after that class ended in the winter of 2013. They laid dormant in my subconscious for a while, as I became focused on writing my dissertation and then heading off to Wisconsin for a summer of eating ice cream, snuggling with that pug, and tubing on the Chippewa River. But afterwards, when I got down to writing again, the poems came back. So I ended up going out and buying Hugo William’s Billy’s Rain about a year and a half after it had been assigned to me! And now it forms a core part of my writer’s library. It’s a book I often return to, reading the same poems over and over again. Here’s “Blindfold Games” for you to enjoy:




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