October 14, 2005

The Trouble With Poetry and Billy Collins

I first encountered the poetry of Billy Collins in 1990 when I bought THE APPLE THAT ASTONISHED PARIS. Someone had given me a photocopy of "Schoolville" at a workshop (it's a good poem for aging teachers) so I checked out his books in a store - that was the only one. The poems were fresh, enjoyable to read, and it was rare at that point in my life that I actually read a poetry book cover to cover.

I recall being surprised how many poems were about death in the collection (though why not - it's of of the 2 big themes). I liked that in "My Number" he wonders about Death coming by for him, getting the scythe out of the car trunk and thinking about ways to talk your way out of the meeting. ("Did you have any trouble with the directions?" he asks Death at the front door.)

I recall thinking when I reread poems or passed them on to others that there was more going on than I had picked up on the first reading.

That's a reason why I was and still am surprised when someone says that his poems are "funny, but there's nothing to go back to later."

When I was able to spend a week workshopping poems with him at the writer's conference at Long Island University in the summer of 1999, it all came together for me.

In the workshops that week, and even more so in the nightly gatherings with him at a Southhampton pub, I could see that he was the poems and the poems were him. The "voice in the poem" who was chopping parsley & listening to Art Blakey was Billy. And I don't mean that I assume that he actually did chop & listen - anymore than I believe that he actually shoveled snow with the Buddha - but he has chopped, listened to that Blakey, and shoveled snow with the Buddha and a poem in his mind.

One thing he talked about in poems we wrote that week was looking at how many cards were revealed in the poem. Look at your poem as a deck of cards spread on the table for your reader. How many do you turn over, how many do you leave face down for the reader to turn? It's an artful balance. One of the troubles with poetry for me is that some poets have achieved some fame by just not turning over many cards. They are obviously "serious" poets, worthy of study. A few don't even put the cards on the table for the reader to turn. And then some turn over so many cards that the poems are very accessible (once a complimentary term, now a curse - like being a liberal) so that they can be dismissed as lightweight.

When I introduced others to his poems or talked about how much I enjoyed his work, I sometimes found myself defending him/it.

His poems of a world in and around a suburban home - at the kitchen table, or the desk, looking out the window, walking and sitting out back, the dog, dinner, driving on the roads nearby - fit right in to my life. No, nothing about politics or poverty, no confessions or eroticism, obscenities and not much about the natural world. (SIDEBAR: Billy was on a panel at a poetry festival concerned with "Poetry & Nature" and he started off by saying that in his poems nature was pretty much only what he saw out his back window.) This is some of the same real estate that John Updike works in his novels and poems and I believe it has similarly cost him some serious attention (though there are plenty of critical studies of Updike and probably scads of theses written & in revision on both of these writers by now).

Donna Seaman writes in Booklist: "Collins is one of the most popular and most disarming of poets. He draws you close with his swinging lines, twirling metaphors, homey imagery, and coy self-deprecation. But he is as likely to be hiding a cudgel behind his back as a bouquet of flowers."

I'm not sure a Dickensian-sounding cudgel would be my weapon of choice in arming Billy (perhaps a record album, a nice solid book, a pint glass recently drained of its Guinness, and you can actually do some damage with a good shot to the face from a bouquet), but I agree with her - it's certainly not all surface polish.

I'll also say that I appreciate the fact that Collins will do some poems that are playing with all of this. His poem "Paradelle For Susan" was for me on a first reading just a goof on formal poetry. I figured the paradelle was a form I had never encountered. When Billy revealed in class (under our oath of silence - an oath we all broke ASAP) the "truth" of his form-invention and the subsequent responses to it by readers and critics, I realized I had been correct. He was goofing. Of course, in a classroom or workshop, the poem can lead to some great discussions on form and how it can free or trap the poet or the pretensions of formal poetry, or on why no one seems to be writing in form - you know, all those troubles with poetry.

I used that poem as a prompt for the site and tried to write a good paradelle myself (which is work) and you can see all our results at http://poetsonline/archive/archparadelle.html

Of course, it became much easier to be a Collins fan when he was appointed Poet Laureate, and it was very easy when you were talking with people at one of his readings. The best of those is certainly at the biannual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey. He's loved. The autograph line winds round and round. It's the Woodstock of poetry, "poetry heaven" as it has been called.

Well, Billy Collins' new book (released 10/18/05) is THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY. New poems, but some of them are poems I have seen in periodicals or heard him read.

One of those poems is "The Lanyard" which is both a tribute to his mom (yes, yes, ALL our moms, all our parents, all those we can never repay) and a brief study in what we do for and to those we love. The poem is, like his lanyard, "two-tone."

I made a number of those lanyards myself when I was a boy killing time over the summer at the rec program at Orange Park in Irvington, NJ. And I know that I was just like the boy in the poem - convinced that "this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even."

I'm surprised to see in the poem an allusion like " No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly" since Collins is generally not much of an allusionist. Sure, it might send a reader to investigate the reference and discover Proust, but it's more likely to just float by a reader. [Writers who visit Poets Online will explore this idea a bit more in the October writing prompt.]

So what is the trouble with poetry? Snobbism? Is it becoming (as Ezra Pound warned) prose with line breaks? Too many allusions? Allusion-less? Too many Collins types of poets or too few? Maybe just too many poets.

Your comments on that are welcome here...

More on Billy Collins http://www.billy-collins.com/


  1. MK sent me this comment by email :
    I thought it was interesting to read your comments on Billy Collins because I've had
    similar thoughts about him. I got to hear him last spring when he came down to Chapel Hill and was amused at
    what a performer he is! He was speaking largely to undergrads at the university (and a few old poets like me),
    and his timing was exqusite. I think many of them liked the humor in his poetry and the cleverness as well, but
    he sandwiched in a few more serious poems as well. I fell in love with the Lanyard at that public reading and I
    sent it around to a number of women I teach with as a tribute to them (it was close to mother's day and I was in
    a sentimental mood)...their responses were powerful to the poem, so he reached a number of people who
    normally don't pick up books of contemporary poetry.

  2. Even his name is unassuming—Billy—just another kid from the block, cracking jokes while roaming the streets with his friends in the hour before dark, slumped at the kitchen table doing his homework before shuffling off to bed. Nothing pretentious about the man or his poetry—just a slight aloofness from the ordinary, everyday stuff he’s immersed in—a poetic stance that enables him to lift familiar objects and simple acts, to tilt them slightly into words that catch light. What I find most appealing is his playfulness coupled with his crafty understanding of poetic form. A good example, and one I’ve used in my creative writing classes, is “Sonnet.” Consider his allusion to Petrarch and and how Collins conflates the poet’s romantic composition with his muse’s call to “put down his pen, take off those crazy medieval tights, blow out the lights, and come at last to bed,” grounding him, and us, in the real world that gives rise to fancy.

    Certainly that “Proustian element” that Ken calls our attention to in the latest Poets Online prompt underlies many of Collins’ poems. I’m thinking of his poem “On Turning Ten” that beautifully captures a timeshift in consciousness that embues that liberating vehicle of childhood, a bicycle, with a numinous quality that can only be recognized in retrospect, the illuminating backward glance we cast as we are propelled into the future. In this poem we also find a playful, yet poignant, allusion to Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind” in the final lines: “…I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees. I bleed.” Not “thorns” but concrete…a painful scrape with reality that harbingers worse falls to come—the tragic-comic note that invites the reader to reexamine the poem and the existential dilemma that it poses.

    --Steve Smith

  3. I think I disagree with the idea that Collins is not an allusionist. His poems are full of allusions to literary things, jazz musicians, artwork. Perhaps they are easily understood allusions by readers of poetry (probably a somewhat more erudite bunch?), but allusions still.

  4. First of all, adding a blogger dimension to the site is brilliant. I know I have often wondered about the gifted poets I read on poetsonline. Even when I "make" the recent poems page, I usually find everyone else's post better than my own. (OK I do have an ego-----at least as good as, HA).
    I enjoyed the cards on the table metaphor in the Collins piece. Too often I open a book of poems and there isn't even a table! Reading Collins is like reading Frost. I'm like, "Oh that was a sweet pastoral experience" ...or was it? That image there is way too dark and just what does he mean by using that allusion just there....especially poems like "Snow Day" put me in mind of Frost's little white spider...

    My blog is sadly neglected but you can go and see my May and July posts!!! :) Also has anyone read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke? I can't remember the last time I was so entranced by a novel. Parts of it are like "Thin Cities" parts like Stevenson on acid. Awesome.
    NB: Two great Jersey poetry readings this week--Highland Park 10-25 Cat Doty--her book is almost as great as she is as a person. And Bob Carnevale in Princetone Saturday night doing a duo thing--he's also one of the nicest people you will meet in the NJ poetry world.

  5. The trouble with poetry is stuff like trying to assess the trouble with poetry. Arrogance and rigidity. If you don't like it you don't buy it, but I don't approve of encouraging poets into a 'loop' where they can revel or sink amid critiques, or assuming that's what a poet wants. Publishers have a financial interest and so do their poets so that's understood but I'm really tired of seeing it online. Some of my favourite poets are rank amateurs who IMO suck at poetry and knowingly or otherwise can't expect to be published, but they write anyway. Analysis is chilly let alone misguided.

  6. Sorry, but I still see Collins as a lightweight. I read about 6 poems in a row from his new book at Barnes & Noble last night. It's like munching popcorn - I eat a bunch, still don't feel filled and can't distinguish one from the other. Do you poems really stick with you after a few days? What do you recall - "Oh yeah, the poem about standing at the window."

    I would prefer in the contemporary vein a Mark Doty. Beautiful language and form and deep, personal feelingg.

    Collins has no heart. I always feel like he's writing to the crowd, playing to a publisher. In 50 years they will say "HE was a poet laureate?"

  7. JEZ said, "Some of my favourite poets are rank amateurs who IMO suck at poetry and knowingly or otherwise can't expect to be published, but they write anyway. Analysis is chilly let alone misguided." Now how on earth can your favorite poets be writers who "suck at poetry"? Doesn't that mean they are bad writers?

    Analysis is part of reading...any kind of reading. To comprehend, we natural analyze, compare, make connections...that is the gist of understanding anything. In poetry, often one has to work to understand the poem. Think of someone like Jorie Graham (someone I have to work hard to understand). Still, isn't working through the words to the meaning part of the delight of reading poetry? The very nature of poetry is allusive and elusive. Mosts of us (poets at least) love exactly that!

  8. "anonymous",

    You know poetry that only has to speak to a loved one, not Bloodaxe or a Parisian coffee house. Or serious contemplative stuff you just might not care to get, but recognise as well thought out or conveying some personal angst. Or fucking haiku. It's all poetry, and it has a legitimate place, and there's no problem unless somebody comes along with a problem.

    There are failed communications, but no hard and fast rules for communicating, especially in poetry. That's the joy of playing with words. Poetry elevates communication to an art, freeing it from convention. I would go so far as to say the only difference between poetry and other art is the words. So what makes bad art? What is 'the trouble with art'?

    On another point you made, which is a fair cop, two distinct types of analysis spring to mind. One is the effort to comprehend, the other is critical scrutiny. I'm not dead against it but I'm weary of the latter type. I guess there's a middle ground which is meditation and discussion but scrutiny still tends to politics, pride and crippling rigidity.

    Regardless, there's art you like and art you don't like, and I'm not suggesting you withold feedback. So give advice or criticism to someone who wants or needs it or whatever, but not from the context of 'the trouble with poetry'. Whatever it is the point of these expressions would be lost. To my mind 'the trouble with poetry' is another excuse to bash artists with analysis instead of leaving them to it, never mind why they do it. I really think that's the trouble with poetry, or rather, with poets. I'm interested to know how others interpret that question.

    /haiku :)

  9. So what is the trouble with poetry? Snobbism? Is it becoming (as Ezra Pound warned) prose with line breaks? Too many allusions? Allusion-less? Too many Collins types of poets or too few? Maybe just too many poets.

    The trouble with poetry is that far too few people read it regularly. We who read the prompts and offer our poems at this site are probably all avid readers of poetry. We think poetry, We write poetry. We write poetry. It is a part of our make up and who we are. But venture out there into the "real" world and look around. How many of your neighbors read poetry? How about those you work with? Poetry is not part of the average American's life once school has been completed.

    After 9/11, poetry surged in popularity. There were articles in newspapers and online that talked about people turning to poetry for comfort. Undoubtedly, Google saw more poetry action than ever before. In a time of crisis, poetry provided something for people who would otherwise not bother to pick up a book of poems. Why then and not now?

    I don't think it's snobbism or elitism. I think many people just don't see themselves as needing or wanting poetry. Poetry does take work. It forces the mind to engage in a way that is very different. Is that why people aren't interested? Who knows?

    What are you views about this? Why are so few of us commited to poetry? We all know why it speaks to us, but why are there so few of us?

  10. Collins was on NPR's All Things Considered, November 6, 2005 ·

    "Poet Billy Collins admits he's a thief. Instead of nabbing jewelry and picking locks, he pilfers from other poets. At least that's what he claims in his new collection, The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems. Collins says the central theme of poetry is death. He manages to ruminate on this in a manner both whimsical and poignant. That approach helps explain how, along with critical acclaim, Collins also has gained a broad popular fan base -- a rare feat." You can listen to the segment at

  11. I know your poem "Today" is about your feelings about spring, but what is the diction in this poem?


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