Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 2]

from an unfinished essay [see note for part 1]

Among American poets who have not become entirely mainstream, David Berman seems particularly adept at bringing a larger audience to poetry. Berman has published one book, Actual Air, which has sold more than 12,000 copies in five printings and received wide notice (in literary magazines as well as major newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, and Spin). Berman’s status as the singer/songwriter for The Silver Jews surely helped his sales, but has had little bearing on the literary world's response to his book, which has been mostly positive. Consider the following excerpts from reviews: “Actual Air is one of the funniest, smartest, and sweetest books of the year” [GQ]; “Actual Air is actual poetry. Berman is on a mission to make the world strange, to find in the doo-dads of daily life a profound weirdness” [Spin]; “Berman’s debut announces the discovery of a great American poetic storytelling voice by a new generation” [Publishers Weekly].) As a poet and literary critic, David Kirby, reviewing Actual Air for the New York Times Book Review, would hardly be swayed by Berman’s music career in his assessment of the book. Despite some quibbles, Kirby concludes that Berman’s poetry has “great promise.” And in Boston Review, the poet-critic Ethan Paquin has described Berman as “a master collector of American miscellany.”

Berman’s poems work because of the quality of his imagination, his understated flair with language, his humor, his compassion, and his sense of timing. In his own words, his poems are “psychedelic soap operas” (Redivider interview). Although attracted to the possibilities and textures of language, Berman is less committed to formal innovation than are more challenging lyric poets. Neither disjunctive nor oblique, arcane nor stylized, his poems evince an attractive ease. But they present the alert reader with sufficient resistance to give the reader a sense of progress in moving through the poems. One does not finish a Berman poem wondering what one has just read, as many people do when reading contemporary poetry for the first time. His poems meet the reader halfway without pandering to the reader. Even the title of his book was selected out of a desire to assuage people’s skepticism about poetry. As he explains in an interview, “I wanted to express in the offset, before someone opened up the book, that poetry is speech, which of course is totally dependent on the fact that you can push air through your mouth and that these words are just air filtered in a certain way” (Brett Burton, “Coming Up for Air,” City Paper).

One of Berman’s signature moves is to treat himself as a character, not as an impermeable construct. This is a direct result of his poetic imagination. He mocks his own sensitivity and pretensions to sensitivity, but he can be disarmingly straightforward in the process, as in “Self-Portrait at 28”:
I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.

My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments…

Berman does not evince the “hatred of Identity” (Evans 13) that characterizes the work of an increasing number of contemporary poets, but a distrust of Identity is common in his work. (According to Steve Evans, avant-garde poets reject “the type of identity conferred by the commodity form” in an attempt to respond to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, imperialism, and their recent offspring, globalization. “Introduction to Writing from the New Coast”, Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetries of the 1990s, edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks.) Berman engages in identity politics by questioning the authority traditionally associated with his identity group, the straight white male. By questioning this authority, he undermines his own position in a social hierarchy which the white heterosexual male has historically dominated. One could call this interrogation an identity crisis, but one that, because of its political ramifications, goes beyond the typical Romantic poet’s questioning of the self. The self in Berman’s poems mutates, turns on, agitates, and generally fucks with itself so as to destabilize the lyric tradition in general and SWM privilege in particular. The lyric voice is assaulted through multiplicity and refraction, but it is consistently maintained, which distinguishes this poetry from radical or otherwise avant-garde poetries. He subtly questions the cultural privilege assumed by and ascribed to SWMs. This social aspect pushes Berman’s poetry further into the public sphere.

Berman’s frequent relinquishment of SWM privilege also appears in James Tate’s poetry, as Lee Upton has pointed out: “The actual work of the poems in their demasculinizing of male characters and caricaturing of heterosexual desires, in the voicing of need, weakness, and contingency, boldly counters patriarchal posturings of expertise” (Upton, The Muse of Abandonment). But Tate is a slippery poet, and at Berman’s age he was more preoccupied with the surfaces of language and more inclined to experiment with words than Berman is. Like Tate, Berman knows that humor can be an effective means of simultaneously inviting the reader into the poem and disorienting the reader.

Berman, in some ways, sounds like Billy Collins. An unusually bland poet with an unusually large readership, Collins is accessible without writing doggerel, humorous without being aggressive, self-deprecatory without being anguished, SWM without being particularly virile. He writes in free verse composed according to the phrase; he does not attempt verbal pyrotechnics. Thus, he offers an unthreatening presence on the page. He even wrote one of the two blurbs for Actual Air (Tate wrote the other one), which might signal an aesthetic affinity between Berman and Collins. Yet I find little to like or even enjoy in Collins’s poetry, even after reading all of Collins’s work, from his first book to Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems and The Trouble With Poetry. Why, then, do certain readers embrace one poet and ignore or shun the other?

First consider Collins’s own thoughts on poetry, as expressed in his introduction to his anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. Here he recycles the well-worn narrative about modernism killing off poetry’s readership: “During the heydey of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane—that Mount Rushmore of modernism—difficulty became a criterion for appraising poetic value,” and thus “readers fled in droves into the waiting arms of novelists” (I agree with Collins that the “hunt for Meaning” is often the surest way to ruin poetry for a reader. But there are ways of talking about a poem that do not rely on meaning or different interpretations but that can be intellectually engaging and enjoyable. Paying attention to—and trying to understand the effects of—the sounds and moves a poem makes, pretending that one is writing the poem and thus making decisions at every step, can effectively involve readers in a poem.)

For Collins, “clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment.” Collins’s denouncement of difficulty and embrace of clarity is meant to forward his own poetics of accessibility, where there is no “obscurity for its own sake,” since “the willfully obscure poem is a hiding place where the poet can elude the reader and thus make appraisal impossible, irrelevant.” Collins’s discussion about the public reception of poetry has shifted from aesthetic terms to ethical terms: difficult poetry not only turns off readers, but is a sign of an evasive, untrustworthy author who under no circumstances wants to connect with readers. This shift points to a major problem in Collins’s thinking—and in others like him—since the question of audience for poetry does not need to become a question of the moral, ethical, or social fitness of the poet. But because Collins obviously has a stake in the legitimacy of the accessible poem and the speciousness of the difficult poem, he must attack the authors of difficult poems, not just the poems themselves. The fact is, difficult poems often seek a deeper connection with their readers than most accessible poems (especially Collins’s) do. By virtue of the work—active reading—a difficult poem can require, the reader can join the poet, temporarily, in the act of the creation and interpretation of meaning. The difficult poem can enlist the reader as much as it can shut out the reader, but Collins does not acknowledge that site of possibility because it is not in his best interest to do so.

Poetry 180 arose from the Poetry 180 project, a program that Collins, as Poet Laureate, initiated to bring a daily poem to high school students. The anthology seeks to present “a generous selection of short, clear contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing.” In theory, Poetry 180 is a worthwhile and potentially effective endeavor. By exposing high school students to a poem every day, without quizzes, tests, papers, or even discussions about the poem, the project implies that poetry does not have to be an academic exercise even if it occurs in an academic setting. Even though Poetry 180 is geared toward high schools, the absence of the usual academic activities creates more possibility for enjoyment. But Collins’s tastes are so bland and out-of-touch that I have difficulty imagining many of the poems he selects appealing to teenagers. He admits to including poems in Poetry 180 that would appeal to high school students—thus the presence of poems about sports and cars. But the poems about sports and cars are almost always written from a middle-aged (and SWM) perspective, and thus (in the eyes of a high school student) from Dad’s perspective. Another example: Paul Muldoon, whose poetry I very much admire, is represented by a poem about a sonogram—not exactly the kind of poem the average, or even above-average, teenager will respond to. “Gathering Mushrooms” (or any number of Muldoon’s shorter poems) would have been a more appropriate choice here. Likewise with Joe Wenderoth, represented here by the allegorical (and relatively “difficult”) “My Life” rather than a piece from Letters to Wendy’s. So Poetry 180 is a case of good intentions—and a good idea—but ultimately a missed opportunity.

Collins’s poems, too, represent numerous missed opportunities. His poems are formally unassuming, written in a free verse that rarely acknowledges the line as a site of possibility. Built almost entirely on the prose phrase, Collins’s lines are among the least notable in contemporary poetry because they are the most common. There is nothing singular or distinctive about them. Although sporadically punctuated, Collins’s line breaks demonstrate little enjambment, as if to use line breaks rather than allow them would prove unpopular or otherwise alienating to the reader. Stylistically, Collins is an adept of the McPoem—a phrase coined by Donald Hall and subsequently encapsulated by Reginald Shepherd as “a little reminiscence, a little nature description, a little epiphany.” At first glance, Berman’s relaxed style can resemble that of Collins, but Collins’s poems admit are almost pathologically bent on small epiphanies. For Berman, the failure of epiphany is as important as its arrival.

Collins’s poems are full of redundancies, imprecision of thought, and lame narratives. Even Collins’s concept-driven poems stem from the most banal concepts. Consider the beginning of “Schoolsville”: “Glancing over my shoulder at the past, / I realize the number of students I have taught / is enough to populate a small town.” This would seem trite and poorly written in prose; that it is cast into lines does not help the idea gain substance. Collins’s set pieces—“Advice to Writers” and “Introduction to Poetry”—are really just two innocuously tongue-in-cheek didactic poems that read like watered-down Kenneth Koch. That said, “Introduction to Poetry” is practically the only poem of any imaginative worth or vigor in Collins’s first book.

Because the narratives in the poems themselves are so lightweight, he sometimes puts all of his energy into a poem’s ending, as in “Vanishing Point,” the first poem in The Apple That Astonished Paris: “You have heard of the apple that astonished Paris? / This is the nostril of the ant that inhaled the universe.” Collins would do well to replicate such wit, however modest, more often in his work. What distinguishes Collins from Berman is his complacency. Formally slack, morally unengaged (despite his claims to the contrary), and politically detached, his poems are polite, almost treacly in their determination to please. They never make the reader—or the poet—uncomfortable. The pleasure they give is without risks. Nowhere does Collins seem menacing, misanthropic, distressed, or otherwise unlikeable. A desire for a negative personality can play into the cliched image of the agitated Romantic poet, but negative emotions appear in almost every poet worth reading. Berman, on the other hand, frequently implicates himself in the pain that can accompany pleasure and therefore attains a more difficult—and more human—equilibrium. Collins’s is a white-washed, white-bread poetry designed for mass consumption and easy digestion. No one leaves a Collins poem troubled or otherwise disturbed. Collins’s style is the non-style.

1 comment:

Joseph Duemer said...

"Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose," Pound (one of the fathers of "difficult" modernist poetry) wrote in The ABC of Reading. What bothers me most about virtually every Collins poem I've read is the preening self-regard of the speaker.