October 14, 2005
The Trouble With Poetry and Billy Collins
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/