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Wages of Fame: The Case of Billy Collins
Posted By Ernest Hilbert On July 8, 2006 @ 9:34 am In Featured,Reviews | 1 Comment
The Apple That Astonished Paris by Billy Collins. University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
Questions About Angels by Billy Collins. William Morrow, 1991 (reprinted by University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999).
The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
The Best Cigarette (audio CD) by Billy Collins. Cielo Publishing, 1997.
Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2001.
Nine Horses: Poems by Billy Collins, by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2002.
Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2003.
180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, edited by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005.
Billy 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.
“Popularity is the one insult I have never suffered.” – Oscar Wilde
“There 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
“There’s 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:
The 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 York Times).
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.
This 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.
As 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:
In the morning when I found History
snoring heavily on the couch,
I took down his overcoat from the rack
and 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):
I was in the back seat
directly behind the driver who was talking
about one thing and another
while his wife smiled quietly at the windshield.
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.
Collins 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:
The fox you lug over your shoulder
in a dark sack
has cut a hole with a knife
The sudden lightness makes you think
you are stronger
as you walk back to your small cottage
through 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 Bukowski:
In keeping with universal saloon practice,
the clock here is set fifteen minutes ahead
of all the clocks in the outside world.
This makes us a rather advanced group,
doing our drinking in the unknown future,
immune from the cares of the present,
safely harbored a quarter of an hour
beyond the woes of the contemporary scene.
No wonder such thoughtless pleasure derives
from tending the small fire of a cigarette,
from observing this glass of whiskey and ice,
the cold rust that I am sipping,
or from having an eye on the street outside
when Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,
rain running off the brim of his hat,
the 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.
His 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
To 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:
If there is only enough time in the final
minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance
I 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.
Still, 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:
It is time to float on the waters of the night.
Time to wrap my arms around this book
And press it to my chest, life preserver
In a sea of unremarkable men and women,
Anonymous faces on the street,
A hundred thousand unalphabetized things,
A 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’:
Which is why the body-that house of voices-
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,
to listen to all its names being called
before 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 Astonished Paris):
Those with thinking caps put them on their heads.
A man waves a map but it is only a painting of a map.
A child produces a compass but the needle
points 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:
sensing only the pale humidity
of the night and the slight zephyrs
that 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:
History will never find a way to end,
I thought, as I left the park by the north gate
and walked slowly home
returning to the station of my desk
where sheets of paper I wrote on
were like pieces of glass
through 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’:
[Genius] was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and 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:
I don’t think this next poem
needs any introduction-
it’s best to let the work speak for itself.
Maybe I should just mention
that whenever I use the word five,
I’m referring to that group of Russian composers
who came to be known as “The Five,”
Balakirev, Moussorgsky, Borodin-that crowd.
Oh-and Hypsicles was a Greek astronomer.
He did something with the circle.
That’s about it, but for the record,
“Grimké” is Angelina Emily Grimké, the abolitionist.
“Imroz” is that little island near the Dardanelles.
“Monad”-well, you all know what a monad is.
There could be a little problem
with mastaba, which is one of those Egyptian
above-ground sepulchers, sort of brick and limestone.
And you’re all familiar with helminthology?
It’s the science of worms.
It is easy to imagine how this works on an audience. After the routine runs on for a bit, the punch line arrives:
The rest of the poem should be clear.
I’ll just read it and let it speak for itself.
It’s 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:
I will turn 420 in dog years,
I have decided to take myself
for a long walk on the path around the lake
But the second stanza veers off, and the joke no longer holds the center:
and when I get back to the house,
I will jump up on my chest
and lick my nose, my ears and eyelids
while 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’:
Tomorrow, [my notebook] will go with me
into the streets where I may stop to look
at my reflection in a store window,
and later I may break a piece of bread
at a corner table in a restaurant
then scribble something down.
Such 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 entitledA 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:
All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only then more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take 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.
The 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.
With one arm raised, I am holding
The Penguin Book of French Verse over my head,
assuming one of the standard positions of summer,
looking up into this little sky of words.
Around the edges of the book is the larger sky,
dotted with clouds, and some overhanging branches
that appear to be slowly swaying back and forth,
as if I were the one lying motionless,
calmly thumbing through Verlaine and Baudelaire
while the world around me slides from side to side
in the lazy rhythm of a hammock.
Whatever is doing the actual swinging would matter
little to Apollinaire who thought religion
looked like a hangar on an airfield and
whose angels plucked geese and wore chef’s hats,
and the drowsier I become the less it matters to me.
Finally rocked beyond words, I close the book
on all the drolleries and the anguishing,
all the poems that have moved in my hands
like butterflies among the flowers of evil.
Above, a soft light shines through an opening
in the two dark maples that are the poles of my dangling.
A light so pale and violet it is impossible
to tell if I am a man of leisure
or a martyr to idleness, tied to these trees,
condemned 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.”
It 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!)
A 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:
The population ages but never graduates.
on hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
and when it’s cold they shiver around stoves
reading disorganized essays out loud.
A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
into the streets with their books.
A 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:
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing 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 poem:
Their grades are sewn into their clothes
Like 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:
At the hotel coffee shop that morning,
the waitress was wearing a pink uniform
with “Florence” written in script over her heart.
And the man who checked my bag
had a badge that said “Ben.”
Behind 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 dam.
However 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 subsets.
It 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 promotional materials:
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 boilerplate.
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:
If 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):
They call Basque an orphan language.
Linguists do not know
what other languages gave it birth.
From the high window of the orphanage
it watches English walking alone to the cemetery
to 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.
Historically 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.[/private]
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