Wages of Fame: The Case of Billy Collins
Apple That Astonished Paris
by Billy Collins. University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
About Angels by Billy
Collins. William Morrow, 1991 (reprinted by University of Pittsburgh
Art of Drowning by
Billy Collins. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
Best Cigarette (audio
CD) by Billy Collins. Cielo Publishing, 1997.
Lightning by Billy
Collins. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2001.
Horses: Poems by Billy Collins,
by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2002.
180: A Turning Back to Poetry,
edited by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2003.
More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day,
edited by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005.
Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space
(audio CD, introduction by Bill Murray) by Billy Collins. New York: Random
House Audio, 2005.
The Trouble with Poetry And Other Poems by Billy Collins. Random House, 2005.
is the one insult I have never suffered.” – Oscar Wilde
are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test
of merit; but the case of song-writing is, we think, one of the few.”
– Edgar Allan Poe
so much hand-wringing from cultural quarters about the sad size of the
audience for poetry. But here I am, writing poetry that’s getting out
there.” – Billy Collins
“A race no longer of heroes but of professors.” – Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal
Most poetry published in America since the height of modernism has come to willfully renounce appeal to the polloi while half-heartedly beckoning the semi-professional literary oligoi. This is so much the case that we often assume popularity to be at odds with the sibylline, undomesticated craft of poetry, yet America has produced a raft of popular poets in the past two centuries. Most have fallen entirely out of favor—Edgar Lee Masters, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to list two former giants. Others who enjoyed great fame and success in their lifetimes have recently benefited from gradually restored reputations, such as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Other pop poets of note include Joyce Kilmer (who has a namesake rest-stop on the New Jersey turnpike) and Robert W. Service, whose Yukon poems brought readers the same bracing adventures as were found in the stories of Jack London and Bret Harte. Pop poet and musician Rod McKuen sold millions of rainbow-festooned volumes in the 1960s and 70s.
Popularity in American poetry is generally as fleeting as it has been anywhere else. The Faustian ambition and distancing erudition of modernist poetry in English—as propounded by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and ensconced in the halls of higher learning—dealt a near-fatal blow to the popular verse formerly memorized and recited by all good students and upstanding citizens. This blow, coupled with the advancing entertainment technology of radio, film, television, and computer games left poetry-as-entertainment diminished to the point of near invisibility. In recent years, however, something odd has occurred in the echoing corridors of American poetry. Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, has overcome the commercial razor wire that has kept poets from large audiences for the past half century.
Collins seemed to rise from thin air for some in the poetry world. After placing several books with university presses and winning the National Poetry Series, his books started to sell so well that earlier editions were reprinted numerous times, and rights were sold from press to press, an unusual situation in poetry, where exceedingly few books ever sell out their initial printings. Championed on the radio and during his extensive tours of the country, Collins cultivated a broad and devoted audience outside major metropolitan areas. It was front-page news when he was offered an alleged one-million-dollar advance from Random House for his selected poems in 2001 (the estimate is highly unlikely, although his editor confirmed Collins’s advance was in the six-digit range). Unlike the bitter feuding that kicked up around Martin Amis’s acceptance of a large—which is to say “unliterary”—advance for his novel The Information in the UK, Collins’s good fortune was met in the United States with a mingling of admiration by amateur poets and surprise by outsiders, who continued to view poetry publishing as a strictly secluded academic affair.
In the 1980s, when most of the wildness and roar had seeped from the poetry boom of the late 1960s, this was partly true. But in the new millennium, it was fast becoming clear to people in and out of the poetry world that something had changed. In 1999 The New York Times dubbed an otherwise unremarkable man—a formerly unknown English professor at Lehman College in New York—“the most popular poet in America.” Actually, the watershed moment for Collins was several years earlier:
crucial moment for Mr. Collins came in early 1997. Pittsburgh [University
Press] brought out Picnic, Lightning in January, and within a few
weeks, Garrison Keillor, who had read several of Mr. Collins’s poems
during the “Writer’s Almanac” feature on National Public Radio,
invited him to appear on his show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Shortly
after that, Mr. Collins was interviewed by Terry Gross, the host of the
NPR show “Fresh Air.” His books sales spiked sharply; since then,
requests from schools and colleges for his readings have multiplied (New
Collins’s most endearing trait, the one that is most frequently
trumpeted by his legions of supporters, is that his poems are, above all,
accessible. This is true. They waft over the reader as easily as poems
can, and this produces a pleasant sensation, particularly for an initiate
of modern poetry who, more likely than not, is actively repelled from the
art by its practitioners and their protective devotees. When Collins reads
his poems, they become a kind of first-rate entertainment. Collins has
traded on his reputation as an available, easily comprehended poet for
most of his career, and earns credit for reaching such a formidably large
audience. However, unlike other popular poets, such as Maya Angelou,
Collins (along with fellow bestseller Mary Oliver) is marketed as if he
were among the most critically revered poets of the age.
As one finds with all popular poets, Collins relies on a very clear and open, basically prosaic style. His poems are supremely accessible. His readers are most appreciative of this clarity and fundamental sense of unity and purpose in his poems. He does not jumble a poem with multiple meanings or voices, nor does he torture grammar and syntax into varied contortions. He makes no obscure references. His poems are never overly indulgent, long, or difficult to understand. Meaning is never private. He never shows off. He avoids most of the maneuvers common to poetry after modernism, and this has stood him in good stead. Many readers, perhaps justifiably, construe those maneuvers as an attempt to raise a fence, to divide the poet, as mysterious, privileged artist, from a general reading audience. The scenarios Collins constructs are either delightfully fantastic—a cross between an Edmund Dulac illustration and a less-druggy “Strawberry Fields”—or reliably domestic and cozy. Poems about pets, dinnertime, morning commutes, and similar fare allow readers immediately into his world, which he is pleased to share. He is accommodating and friendly. His immense popularity (by poetry standards) may be all the evidence one needs that many people want to enjoy poetry. They want to read it, and they probably have, at some point, written it themselves. They do not want to be shut out, any more than they want to be spurned from a recital hall or art gallery.
brings us to another question, however. All sales and prizes to one side,
is Billy Collins an accomplished poet? The answer depends to a large
degree on how one measures accomplishment in poetry. A strong case can be
made for variety, formal as well as thematic. In this regard, he has
accomplished little. Collins is a poet of several merits. The most
commonly applauded are his sense of humor, his light ironic touch, and his
accessibility. Those are accomplishments, certainly, but, to date, they
remain the only ones he has realized. Should readers expect more than a
small range of achievements in a poet’s work? That is up to them, of
course, and they have voted with their wallets for Collins over any other
poet writing today.
a live reader he is charming, and his modesty is downright disarming. He
is very concerned with the comfort of the reader, as one finds him
remarking in his latest collection. He says he likes to “lasso” his
readers. He is congenial, and it must be a great relief for casual readers
of poetry and novices who have come to feel that poets, like many artists,
are ungratefully self-involved. Collins wants to be sure everyone feels
good. His friendly, easily understood deadpan irony is perfect for
listening audiences. His mid-poem banter is concise and explanatory,
peppered with humorous sayings and anecdotes. However, if one were told to
listen and not told that what was being recited was a poem, one could be
forgiven for thinking that Collins was reading from a book like Lake
Wobegon Days or The Ferrari in the Bedroom. There is very
little to indicate that what he recites is, in fact, poetry, aside from
the occasional announcement of itself as a poem. They are lovely, domestic
musings, delivered in unprepossessing language by a retiring, avuncular
man. But one also feels that he is a bit of a smart ass, and this endears
him further to his audience. One might guess that his readers and
listeners have grown to like Billy Collins the man, the poet, the persona,
whomever you choose, but in the end the poems must stand on their own and
be judged on their own merits. If one is to grant them their light touch
of pokerfaced humor, their openness and accessibility, and their
plainspoken grace, it remains to be asked what else recommends them.
Collins’s poems are easy to read, but they do not vary in appearance or
approach. A deficiency one encounters when reading through several of
Collins’s books at once is one of scale. Taken a poem at a time, Collins
can be diverting and fun. But when the reader pulls back—as it is not
unreasonable to do with a poet at this stage of a career—the longer view
is disappointing. Collins has, in essence, written the same poem with
slight variations for a quarter-century. The results are mixed, but his
career, taken in toto, leaves one with a sense of sameness. Charting
a narrow stylistic course is not always a prescription for failure. Ogden
Nash, who appeared principally in small doses in periodicals like The
New Yorker, repeated
the same basic style for decades. One Nash poem is sweet and fizzy, like a
cocktail, and like a cocktail one may be refreshing, but several in a row,
without solids, may cause dizziness.
There is no notable difference between a poem from an early Collins book and one from his most recent. Here is a stanza from the 1980s:
the morning when I found History
heavily on the couch,
took down his overcoat from the rack
placed its weight over my shoulder blades.
Never mind that an overcoat weighs on your shoulders and not your shoulder
blades, and compare it in tone to a poem published two decades later,
‘The Drive’, from his most recent book The Trouble With Poetry (2005):
was in the back seat
His poems remain in this register. If this were not already a common style of American free verse poem, one would recognize it immediately as a Collins poem, if only because all his poem approach this form. Linear laxity may be one of the reasons Collins is so popular as a reader of his own poems. He is a “spoken word” artist for the older mortgage-holding listener. This impression is buoyed by the way his audio publisher (Random House owns Knopf, which issues his books; Random House Audio issues his CDs), has chosen to market him. One-third page advertisements in The New Yorker and elsewhere promote his readings and recordings. Such lavish outlay of advertising budgets has not yet been devoted to support his books.
writes one style of free verse, observational, slightly surreal poem. He
never ventures far from this successful formula. He has a Ph.D. in
English, and has taught literature for years, so clearly he is familiar
with poetic traditions even if he chooses not to make use of them. One is
reminded of Sir Thomas Beecham’s comment: “a musicologist is someone
who can read music but can’t hear it.” Still, some of his poems—the
best of the rather broad lot—have power in them. Consider “Hunger,”
from The Apple that Astonished Paris:
fox you lug over your shoulder
a dark sack
cut a hole with a knife
sudden lightness makes you think
you walk back to your small cottage
a forest that covers the world.
It has the symbolic power of fable, but it stands out from the rest of his
oeuvre in such a way that leaves the reader looking for parallels
elsewhere. ‘Hunger’ is reminiscent of Charles Simic’s folk surreal
style. Often Collins’s better poems are pastiches of other poets. For
instance, ‘The Best Cigarette’ (The Art of Drowning) and ‘Bar
Time’ (The Apple That Astonished Paris) owe a debt to Charles
keeping with universal saloon practice,
clock here is set fifteen minutes ahead
all the clocks in the outside world.
makes us a rather advanced group,
our drinking in the unknown future,
from the cares of the present,
harbored a quarter of an hour
the woes of the contemporary scene.
wonder such thoughtless pleasure derives
tending the small fire of a cigarette,
observing this glass of whiskey and ice,
cold rust that I am sipping,
from having an eye on the street outside
Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,
running off the brim of his hat,
late edition like a flag in his pocket.
Collins constructs his brand of poem to perfection here. He combines a
larger observation—“the fifteen minutes” that bar clocks have over
the outside world—with more detailed ones, the “small fire” of a
cigarette and the “cold rust” of the whiskey. He also creates a
setting that the reader can imagine visiting. He avoids pretentious
literary references and sloppy metaphors. This is an example of the poems
that have justly drawn so many readers to Collins.
deliberate pastiches, or parodies, of serious poets are other matters
altogether. ‘Monday Morning’ (The Art of Drowning) is a dreary
send-up of the Wallace Stevens poem ‘Sunday Morning’. Surprisingly, it
seems more like a slight against Stevens than anything else. Adam Kirsch
wrote in The New Republic that
deal only in punning wit even indicates an essential falsehood in the
poet’s view of his art, as though language were only interesting when it
is defective, never when it is a tool of discovery. It is a way of
discouraging linguistic curiosity and verbal ambition, without which there
is no greatness in poetry.
Likewise, ‘Dancing Toward Bethlehem’ (The Art
of Drowning), a lame joke on W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second
Coming’—one of the most powerful and frightening poems of the
twentieth century—is faintly nauseating to anyone who values Yeats:
there is only enough time in the final
of the twentieth century for one last dance
would like to be dancing it slowly with you.
Cute, but also belittling. Why should a poet tackle grand historical
matters when all he wants to do is have a night out with his girl? All the
‘Dover Beach’ reassurance this poem might provide leaks out and we are
left with nothing of consequence. Collins can no more give us a line as
powerful as “ignorant armies clash by night” than he would “that
twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking
cradle.” His chosen company does not flatter him. What does it say that
he will not even adjust his style for a moment when paying homage or
thumbing his nose at a great poetic ancestor? He does not take up the
styles of Stevens or Yeats even in a parody. His style remains precisely
the same as it does everywhere else in his writing. Why Collins would
choose to borrow and bend two of the most famous poems in the
language—without any clear commitment or effort—is probably a matter
for his therapist rather than a literary critic. It is fine to poke fun in
literature, to have fun, and to punch some holes in the “great” poems
from time to time, even quite healthy to do so, but when it is all you do
by way of remarking upon earlier traditions, we have a problem.
Collins fields a recognizable, if generic, style, which reaches its finest
expression in Picnic, Lightning. Of all his books, it contains the
most worthwhile moments. “What I Learned Today” is a lovely paean to
the sometimes-lonely act of reading:
is time to float on the waters of the night.
to wrap my arms around this book
press it to my chest, life preserver
a sea of unremarkable men and women,
faces on the street,
hundred thousand unalphabetized things,
million forgotten hours.
‘The Night House’ (Picnic, Lightning) is another attractive poem on the subject of work and rest, ever so faintly reminiscent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Work without Hope’:
is why the body—that house of voices—
puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
stare into the distance,
listen to all its names being called
bending again to its labor.
Yet even at his best there is no trace of the ambiguity so beloved of the
modernists when they read seventeenth-century poets or of us today when we
read the modernists. Collins chooses not to exploit the elasticity of the
English language, nor does he pursue any of its inherent alliterative
qualities. His quaintness, which explains much of his appeal, also
explains his unwillingness to take significant risks. Some of his poems
are unendurably cute, as in his poem ‘Lost’ (The Apple That
with thinking caps put them on their heads.
man waves a map but it is only a painting of a map.
child produces a compass but the needle
only to a distant toy store.
Collins is lauded by his fans for his use of simple, everyday language, but clunkers do appear. The proem to his book Nine Horses (2002, a Today Show book club selection), ‘Night Letter to the Reader’, has the distinction of ending on a badly conceived simile comparing the moon to Shakespeare’s receding hairline, but it also distinguishes itself through the use of the stale old poeticism for “wind”: “zephyr,” after the minor Greek god:
only the pale humidity
the night and the slight zephyrs
stir the tops of the trees.
The most astounding aspect of Collins’s willingness to use archaic poetic diction is that his poems do not employ rhyme, so he does not have the excuse available to the amateur songwriter that the deity of sound got the better of his cousin sense. One hopes that “zephyrs” would be struck from a young poet’s line by a benevolent mentor and replaced with “breeze” or “wind” or even “gusts.”
Such dalliances with outdated language aside, Collins provides the simplest of surfaces. Even when his language is straightforward, it is utterly plain. One is dazzled by no exciting or original turns of phrase or imaginative use of language. One needn’t descend into mere word games and scrabblishness to appreciate the wonderful playfulness of the English language. Hominess is not exactness, often quite the reverse. The reader would not be blamed for feeling that Collins is simply not trying very hard. By his own admission, according to Magma online magazine, he “usually finishes a poem in one sitting.” Poetry is not about competition (or at least it ought not to be), but it should be about excellence and originality, innovation balanced against a concern for tradition. Collins’s poems bear no more scrutiny than a hastily assembled junior high science experiment. The pieces are there, but it does not function to very high specifications.
The Trouble With Poetry, his eighth collection, shows Collins capable of composing in a darker, more serious mode, but these efforts are easily lost among the crowd of joke poems that rely on recurring punch lines. An example of the best of his new writing is “Boy Shooting at a Statue.” The poem describes a young boy’s visit to the park late on a winter day. He plays at shooting a statue until “Evening thickened, the mercury sank.” This recalls Auden’s line “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day” in his elegy for Yeats, a poem Collins must have taught to students hundreds of times. Collins uses this allusion to evoke the cold distance of history from individual human suffering and builds to the despairing line “History will never find a way to end,” a highly unusual moment of gravity for Collins, who resists any temptation to make a joke out of this poem (the line also summons James Joyce’s famous line, spoken by Stephen Dedalus, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). It ends with a domestic scene, as so many of his poems do, but with a rare, and surprisingly beautiful metaphor:
will never find a way to end,
thought, as I left the park by the north gate
to the station of my desk
sheets of paper I wrote on
like pieces of glass
which I could see
hundreds of dark birds circling in the sky below.
The circling birds are ominous rather than cartoonish, and here Collins is
closer to the bloodcurdling ruminations of Franz Wright than the
reassuring platitudes of Joyce Kilmer. The birds in this poem are not
likely to crack wise or behave like dopey commuters, as animals do in
other Collins poems. They menace reader and author, and they may be a
subtle reference to the “indignant desert birds” whose shadows orbit
the eternally watching sphinx in Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’.
The desk that has, until now, been a cozy refuge for Collins is
transformed into a “station,” which immediately reminds the reader of
the stations of the cross, points of suffering to be endured on some
final, fated route, as well as a train or bus station, a center of endless
anonymous traffic and commerce. In this poem, Collins bounds forward from
his earlier style, but it remains an anomaly in his work, even now. From
this precipice, Collins soon returns to his more sarcastic self in the
following poem, ‘Genius’:
was what they called you in high school
you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
all your books went flying.
Although the tone has lightened again, one would not be mistaken in sensing as much bitterness as laughter, as if Collins himself may have been the “genius” tripped up in what he describes in the book’s title poem as the “treacherous halls of high school.” Otherwise, The Trouble With Poetry is not much of a departure from his earlier books. Mornings are invariably described as “bright”. His characters “hunger for affection” and are met with “frosty disregard,” hardly original uses of the language. The stand-up poem, as it has been called, is in evidence. A strong example of this crowd-pleasing style of poem is ‘The Introduction’, which pokes fun at the tendency of some poets to offer an essay-length prologue to each poem, to ensure that the audience will be able to connect the dots:
don’t think this next poem
best to let the work speak for itself.
I should just mention
whenever I use the word five,
referring to that group of Russian composers
came to be known as “The Five,”
Moussorgsky, Borodin—that crowd.
did something with the circle.
is Angelina Emily Grimké, the abolitionist.
is that little island near the Dardanelles.
you all know what a monad is.
could be a little problem
mastaba, which is one of those Egyptian
sepulchers, sort of brick and limestone.
the science of worms.
is easy to imagine how this works on an audience. After the routine runs
on for a bit, the punch line arrives:
rest of the poem should be clear.
just read it and let it speak for itself.
about the time I went picking wild strawberries.
It’s called “Picking Wild Strawberries.”
Not a bad joke, but not a terribly good poem. However, as both joke and poem it is perfectly in line with his standard policy toward poetry, which is that it should be straightforward and written in plain language for easy delivery. He has a well-publicized distaste for obscurity and difficulty, which he probably shares with most of his readers, and he has enshrined those tastes in semi-institutional settings, such as the Poetry 180 website and anthologies, begun when he was poet laureate.
Collins has a tendency to take a pleasant joke and grind it down. Sometimes, the joke just runs off the track for some reason. ‘Care and Feeding’ (The Trouble With Poetry) begins well in the first stanza:
will turn 420 in dog years,
have decided to take myself
a long walk on the path around the lake
will jump up on my chest
lick my nose, my ears and eyelids
I tell myself again and again to get down.
It is difficult to see how that is particularly funny, and not only because it is an absurdity. It is also arid. The new book contains many examples of the sort of poem readers will find in all Collins books: slightly whimsical descriptions of the author writing poetry and having various thoughts, as one finds in ‘The Notebook’:
[my notebook] will go with me
the streets where I may stop to look
my reflection in a store window,
a corner table in a restaurant
scribble something down.
poems express an amazing lack of ambition, but they nonetheless attract a
wide group of readers.
What do all of these poems have in common? A remorseless reliance on free verse leaves each Collins poem to depend on its subject matter alone for support, and his range of subject matter is itself limited to a handful of scenarios. The assumption must be that his topics are so charming that they prove irresistible even in the absence of poetic technique. Whatever else might be said of the tradition of formal technique in poetry, it provides a different means of thinking about the world. A haiku will present a different mental construction than a sonnet, which in turn will be quite remarkably different from a long poem in elaborate stanzas, such as rhyme royal. A digressive, Old Testament-style ramble, as one finds in Walt Whitman, A.R. Ammons, and Allen Ginsberg, will yield different results than one will find in a sestina. By abandoning formal variety in his poetry, Collins has penned himself in. There are limits to what one may say in short, free verse poems.
Collins creates poetry that is instantaneously accessible and always pleasantly relaxed. It is difficult to imagine anyone disagreeing with one of his sentiments. He never dislocates the reader. He is never really strange, even if he has whimsical moments. Needless to say, this is all accomplished in free verse. The only time he has any use for traditional poetic form is to fashion a joke from it, as with ‘Paradelle for Susan’ (Picnic, Lightning), in which he ridicules the villanelle form by imagining a purposely impossible “fixed French form” called the “paradelle” with what the reader is meant to understand are disastrous results. (“Paradelle” is clearly a amalgamation of “parody” and “villanelle,” and it is disappointing that critic Robert Darling, attempting to push the Expansive Poetry line five feet closer to the enemy’s capital, missed this lame joke altogether in his review of Picnic, Lightning; Darling became so distracted with chiding Collins for his lack of craft that he assumed the make-believe form was not only real but “not a form for a lazy poet.”)
Some poets in the rough, taking Collins at his word, have begun to write paradelles, believing them to be an ancient poetic form. Collins went on to write an essay on his hoax form for An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, and it is rumored that Collins is busy editing a book of them entitled A Brief History of the Paradelle. This game would be fine if Collins had written accomplished villanelles, but he has not. He managed a sonnet with assonantal rhymes and no clear pattern of metrics called ‘Duck/Rabbit’ (Picnic, Lightning). He is a free verse poet first last and always, except when he pokes fun at traditional forms. He even published a poem called ‘Sonnet’ (Sailing Alone Around the Room), which while containing fourteen lines is entirely non-metrical and unrhymed. It “talks” about being a sonnet, but that is all:
we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
after this one just a dozen
launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
only then more left like rows of beans.
easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
insist the iambic bongos must be played
rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
for every station of the cross.
hang on here while we make the turn
the final six where all will be resolved,
longing and heartache will find an end,
Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.
Although he focuses on the wellspring of the sonnet as presented by
Petrarch, his notions of the form and its supposed monotony are outdated.
He inserts an internal rhyme into the final line, to rhyme with the
terminal word of the penultimate line (“tights / lights”), but it
should be noted that such nods to musicality are rare in his poetry.
slimness of Collins’s technical portfolio is matched by that of his
characterization. Most of the characters that populate Collins’s poems
wind up fishing on a summer afternoon or lying on the grass, gazing at the
clouds like Huck Finn, when they are not finishing dinner or driving down
the road, relaxing, having thoughts.
one arm raised, I am holding
Penguin Book of French Verse over my head,
one of the standard positions of summer,
up into this little sky of words.
the edges of the book is the larger sky,
with clouds, and some overhanging branches
appear to be slowly swaying back and forth,
if I were the one lying motionless,
thumbing through Verlaine and Baudelaire
the world around me slides from side to side
the lazy rhythm of a hammock.
is doing the actual swinging would matter
to Apollinaire who thought religion
like a hangar on an airfield and
angels plucked geese and wore chef’s hats,
the drowsier I become the less it matters to me.
rocked beyond words, I close the book
all the drolleries and the anguishing,
the poems that have moved in my hands
butterflies among the flowers of evil.
a soft light shines through an opening
the two dark maples that are the poles of my dangling.
light so pale and violet it is impossible
tell if I am a man of leisure
a martyr to idleness, tied to these trees,
to swing gently in the shade until dead.
(‘Reading in a Hammock’, The Art of Drowning)
This is a very “literary” poem in that it relies on the reader’s
familiarity, in some degree, with other poets, and its despairing close,
while mirroring that of the French poets he notes, seems unsupported.
Certainly, one might suggest he is merely being ironic. His life is so
easy that he is literally swinging in a hammock reading, so there is a
disjunction between such dark thoughts and his life as it is actually
lived. This is not certain, but it is not very clever even if it is the
case. While it resembles in vague outline
James Wright’s “Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm In Pine
Island, Minnesota,” it lacks that classic poem’s power, embodied in
its final, intriguing line: “I have wasted my life.”
becomes clear that most of the characters in his poems are, in fact, him.
He never attempts the involved characterization and dialogue of Robert
Frost, even though he is sometimes compared to that master. Collins tends
to rest at the center of his own attention, and while he has some capacity
to “aw shucks” his readers half to death, he is incapable of uttering
a truly discouraging word. His poems are comforting and reassuringly
predictable. Collins may be best understood as a type of pop artist (pop
as in American Idol, pleasing the greatest numbers with spangly but
ultimately tame renditions of the same song). Collins knows his
limitations and is at ease with them. If he took chances, or attempted
more advanced techniques, he would lose his audience. He is the Kenny G.
of poetry. (In late-breaking news, Collins published a salute to Catullus
called ‘The News Today’ in the February/March 2006 issue of Bookforum,
which ends with the refreshingly piquant lines: “And so we hail you,
Catullus, / across the wide, open waters of literature, / you nasty
motherfucker, you flaming Roman prick.” Bravo!)
Collins poem can also be understood as a form of journal entry. While
Charles Wright has spent the past decades raising the uses of a private
journal to the highest imaginable purposes with his Appalachian trilogy,
Collins continues to issue minor reports from his kitchen. These consist
of comparatively minor observations and fanciful musings, as in
‘Schoolsville’ (The Apple That Astonished Paris), in which he
imagines all of his ex-students living in a small town:
population ages but never graduates.
hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
when it’s cold they shiver around stoves
disorganized essays out loud.
bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
the streets with their books.
fine idea, if unoriginal (the Galway
Kinnell chestnut ‘The Correspondence School Instructor Says Goodbye To
His Poetry Students’ is a superior poem),
but the Collins poem is flawed by clumsy metaphors:
girl who signed her papers in lipstick
against the drugstore, smoking,
her hair like a machine.
This is an ongoing problem with Collins. His metaphors
tend to be clichés or wind up being ineffectual and even, on occasion,
distasteful. Whatever a girl brushing her hair might seem most like, she
is not a “machine.” Wind through a tree, waves hitting the shore, any
loosely repetitive cliché would work satisfactorily in place of
“machine,” which brings to mind a heartless, oily, menacing, dark,
hard thing. Another problem bearing down on this poem, and another that
plagues Collins, is a self-conscious literary approach that hobbles the
grades are sewn into their clothes
references to Hawthorne.
D for “divorcee” perhaps?
There is another explanation for Collins’s enormous success. He is beloved as a reader of poems, and his poems work best when read aloud. This makes them ideal to fill space allotted to poetry on radio programs, such as MPR’s Prairie Home Companion (Minnesota Public Radio, though the program is syndicated in various NPR outlets), where Garrison Keillor has campaigned untiringly for Collins. Collins is also very active on the reading circuit, which is more lucrative than ever before, with poets sometimes earning as much as $8,000 or more for a half-hour’s exertion at cultural centers and universities in wealthier parts of the nation. Books of poetry sell well once a poet has appeared on the radio and read on hundreds of stages. Collins’s poems seem prepared specifically to be conveyed through these media, and book sales follow.
Collins is a first-rate reader of his poems. His wry delivery of humorous poems like ‘Nostalgia’—on his CD The Best Cigarette—is quite memorable, and his greatest accomplishment might really be as author and speaker of monologues (he sounds eerily like Kevin Spacey). It is very hard to tell that he is reading poems. They sound like short comedy routines. His CD The Best Cigarette sold briskly, and his highly publicized 2005 reading at Symphony Space in New York City was well attended (he was introduced by Bill Murray and the resulting CD was energetically marketed). One might be forgiven for thinking that Collins resembles literary personalities like David Sedaris or Jean Shepherd more than he does other poets. Collins earns more audience laughter than many respectable comedians. This is a gift, and perhaps his true calling is as a “stand up poet,” as Dwight Garner labeled him in the New York Times.
Collins is usually thought of above all as a comic poet. Humor in poetry is difficult. If Collins’s poems are actually scripts for comic performance, readers are robbed of the crucial half of the joke, the delivery, when reading them. Like song lyrics, notes for comedy rely heavily on performance. A lovely song can seem silly or vacuous when the lyrics are read sans music. The same is true of a joke. The joke is in the telling. A book of Collins’s poems is really a collection of notes, entries, and scripts. They come to life when Collins mounts the stage. When he was selected to appear in the summer 2005 humor issue of Poetry magazine, his poem came across as less obviously humorous than the others:
the hotel coffee shop that morning,
waitress was wearing a pink uniform
“Florence” written in script over her heart.
the man who checked my bag
a badge that said “Ben.”
him was a long row of royal palms.
The point of this poem is that he imagines how nice it
would be to tell his life story to such random servers as he encounters
while touring and how this would make him feel like a beaver building a
good his timing as a reader, on the page Collins displays little
modulation, of tone, of thematic substance, of lexicon. A Collins poem
introduces a simple idea and pursues it until the author can seemingly
think of nothing else to say on the matter. As Robert Darling has
commented: “Time after time, one puts down the volume and senses good
ideas not developed into all they could be.” In essence, this
single-idea form is precisely what one would expect from a Shakespeare
sonnet, except that Shakespeare embellished an inherited form with a full
battery of poetic effects, aural and otherwise, divided rhetorically into
is quite possible that Collins himself never wanted all the attention he
has received or the laurels that have been heaped onto his head. Poetry
reviewers, from whose fount all blurbs must flow, are notorious for grade-inflated displays of
praise and commendation, particularly if they want to catch the eye of a
famous poet or reward a dutiful pupil. Anyone who gains the level of
attention that Collins has will also accumulate a lavish display of praise
to go along with it. However, a problem arises when an average poet like
Collins is hailed as one of the best—or simply the best—that American
poetry has to offer. Here is a citation that runs regularly with his
Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. His readings are usually standing room only, and his audience—enhanced tremendously by his appearances on National Public Radio—includes people of all backgrounds and age groups. The poems themselves best explain this phenomenon.
Collins has not received a great deal of serious critical acclaim, so one
is incredulous. There is no disputing that he is very popular, so why
slather on critical praise as well? Why is it not enough to be loved by a
wide audience? Once “critical acclaim” is simply assumed to adhere to
popularity, all praise becomes mere flattery, and the consequence is that
our perspectives on art become flattened. Commentary becomes marketing
Like Jeff Koons, a no less contentious figure in the world of art, Billy Collins has divided opinion with his aggressively “pop” sensibility in poetry. He has stated, “I think a lot of readers are frustrated with the obscurity and self indulgence of most poetry. I try very assiduously to court the reader and engage him. I am interested more in a public following than a critical one.” He has delivered his message through the same publishers, the same magazines, and the same performance halls as the great and good of American poetry, but he has added more than a modicum of mainstream media attention, such as the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and the “Today Show.” The message he delivers is nearly always the same: simplicity and accessibility are to be valued above all other qualities in poetry, and that this is why Collins has found himself in such an enviable position. To borrow a page from poet-critic Joan Houlihan’s essay ‘If Only We Couldn’t Understand Them’, accessibility may be a virtue—something to be enjoyed in poetry or, more likely, something that permits one to enjoy other things in a poem—but it is not the only virtue. In fact, like all other virtues, it stands in a relation to others.
As a “gateway” poet who entices new readers to poetry, Collins may be a constructive force. By offering poetry that is undemanding and instantly familiar, he does not risk frightening off neophytes, but neither will he prepare them for the intensity and power of poets like Geoffrey Hill, much less prime them for the subtlety of an Elizabeth Bishop or the cerebral labyrinths of a Wallace Stevens. His most exotic poems barely scale the lower tiers of human experience. By his own admission, his aims are modest: “I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day.” This is hardly a very compelling basis for an entire artistic career. It is hardly grounds for a single book-length examination. Emotionally, his poems remain inert. Culturally they are tourist pieces, adorned with postcards of famous paintings and wistfully inviting the reader to remember a coffee sipped at a piazza in Rome one summer. There is little in the way of raw emotion on the one hand or formal elegance on the other. They are “starter” poems, and one hopes they will lead on to other things, though there is no evidence of this.
To someone who is new to contemporary American poetry, Collins might appear interesting on first blush, but if he were set aside a dozen of the best American poets of the past fifty years, he would be utterly eclipsed. He scarcely employs any distinct poetic tools such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, and rhythm. Mary Jo Salter had this to say about Nine Horses:
you often think of such poems but can’t quote from them, that’s partly
because you don’t go to Billy Collins for complex metrical effects or
rhyme schemes, either of which might be usefully mnemonic. His pacing and
sense of proportion are rhythmic and graceful, but their effect feels as
tossed off and elusive as conversation. Nor can you often turn to Collins
for much in the way of assonance, alliteration, wordplay, or even for a
venturesome vocabulary. It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want most
poets to disregard so many tools of versification.
Perhaps Collins is most tolerable when one expects very little. Modest expectations are the key to reading Collins. Rereading a poem will reveal nothing that was not easily gleaned the first time. Some post-modern poems are so dense and obscure that infinite readings will not reveal the core of meaning, possibly because the poem itself is an exercise in the inability to “truly” read a text. Against the backdrop of unremittingly self-indulgent and obscure post-Ashbery poems, Collins is sometimes held up as an antidote, a welcome change. One reading and you are done, but at least you came away from the poem with something.
Another of the reasons for Collins’s popularity may be that his poems seem amateur. It is quite astounding how much badness he is able to concentrate in some of them (The Apple That Astonished Paris):
call Basque an orphan language.
do not know
other languages gave it birth.
the high window of the orphanage
watches English walking alone to the cemetery
visit the graves of its parents,
Latin and Anglo-Saxon.
This is facile, in the pejorative sense of the word. It also contains redundancies. The second and third lines add nothing to the first. In a poem this short (seven lines), two extra lines have a way of standing out. This is the sort of knowing, “educated” poem that makes non-readers of poetry cringe, and with good reason. Recreational readers of poetry might congratulate themselves on “getting” these poems, as Collins puts it, but that is little recompense for having missed the big picture.
Billy Collins served as the United States poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. While not as active and ambitious as Robert Pinsky, who certainly pressed the possibilities of the office to their limits, he was certainly more present in the position than his successor Louise Glück, who was essentially invisible to the point of contempt. The late Anthony Hecht quipped at the time that Collins’s “appointment is a novelty, but an attractive one.”
This might be a bit unfair. After all, the US Poet Laureateship is quite distinct from its aristocratic, basically panegyric British counterpart. The US laureate is expected to project a friendly, democratic vision of poetry rather than serve as homilist and memorialist of a royal family. The British version has hardly produced a great pantheon of poets, either. While some have been stars, like John Dryden and Alfred Lord Tennyson, most have been of middling talents, such as Andrew Motion, to name a current example; and some have been so dreadful that they come down to us chiefly as the butts of jokes, such as Nahum Tate, Colley Cibber, and Thomas Shadwell, around whose face a “lambent dullness played” in fellow laureate Dryden’s ruinous send-up ‘MacFlecknoe’ (we should also remember that Cibber was a casualty of Pope’s pen and Southey of Byron’s).
An American poet laureate probably should not be the most technically accomplished or even historically relevant poet. Modesty, user-friendliness, and gentle humor are job assets. This is one role for which a poet known for being popular and available is the best fit. Since taxpayer money is involved (not much, but enough to make journalists take notice), the laureate should undertake some outreach and popularizing efforts. Collins is ideal for this role. Inaugural recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Mark Twain Award for humorous poetry, he was also chosen as a “Literary Lion” by the New York Public Library. He is affable and welcoming. He is unpretentious to the point of self-effacement. Even if these traits do not add up to literary greatness, they have earned him a following to parallel that of some rock musicians and Hollywood actors.
Collins’s practical achievement as laureate was the creation of the Poetry 180 website and anthologies, which offer an easy, introductory contemporary poem for each day of the high school year, intended particularly for students to hear in English class or while held captive during the dreaded morning announcements. Teachers are urged to avoid discussing the poems or building any kind of assignment around them. The core of this attitude is a good one. Poetry could do with being unmoored from academic settings and put back into the world beyond the lagoons of academe. Although a respectable enterprise, it highlights what might be considered the central shortcoming of Collins as a poet. He writes in the introduction to Poetry 180 that he wanted poems that “any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.” This is ideal for his purposes (or it may be that these purposes are fitted perfectly to his ideal). The poems he likes best, the ones he included on the website and in the book, are suited to the adolescent “wish to accelerate, to get from zero to sixty in a heartbeat or in a speed-shop Honda.”
All practicality aside, the one thing genuinely accomplished by such an editorial gesture is that it solves the headache of distinguishing “between legitimate difficulty and obscurity for its own sake” by simply eradicating all difficult poems from the reader’s ken right from the start. Collins asks rhetorically “if there is no room in poetry for difficulty, where is difficulty to go?” His answer? He does not really have one, except to say that even simple poems are difficult when we “experience” them. He goes on to denounce complexity in literary art as an unnecessary roadblock. According to Collins, the difficulty that reigned as a criterion of greatness among the modernists also caused readers to “flee in droves into the waiting arms of novelists, where they could relax in the familiar surroundings of social realism.” Let us forget for one moment that modernism also produced exceptionally ambitious and complex novels. Collins refuses to give difficulty in poetry a hearing at all. Instead, he claims “clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment.” This is not entirely true. Artistic complexity yields itself up to a different grade and degree of judgment. In his defense, Collins is correct in identifying the superficiality of claims that America is experiencing a poetry renaissance based on the burgeoning of MFA programs, books, magazines, and readings. He is probably right in believing that there are actually more people writing than reading poetry in America. This is a grievous situation, and—all defenses of modernism and its inheritance in abeyance—Collins’s managerial efforts at reclaiming an audience for poetry of any kind, including his own, are likely to be appreciated by most poets.
speaking, the most remarkable facet of Billy Collins’s steady
best-selling run is the reintroduction of the morally unassailable popular
poet into American culture. Charles Bukowski may be fun, but what his fans
(and I am one) find gritty and authentic will disgust many readers. Ditto
for Allen Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, and many other possible pretenders to the
throne. Although Collins does not resemble the pop poets who came before
him, he clearly has a handle on what casual poetry readers enjoy. He
combines the informal free verse of Carl Sandburg with the sentimental
observations of Joyce Kilmer. The clamor of self-appointed avant-gardists
and concerned traditionalists will continue unabated beneath his steady
success, just as they have coexisted with other popular poets for at least
a century. Faddists will cotton quickly to his style, and his simple
approach to the lyric form may create more new poets than poetry readers
in the long run. He is in a rare position of influence and popularity, and
one can be certain that he will take matters steadily in his “blue
jeans” style. Even if he offers no surprises, he will be remembered
fondly by countless appreciative readers and will almost definitely be
counted as the most popular, if not the most gifted, poet of his age.