Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 3]

from an unfinished essay [see note for part 1]

But Collins was not always so milquetoast. “Hart Crane,” for example, stands out as a well-developed piece that imagines Crane’s body hitting the water and feeling the water around him change from wake to wave. The poem seems perverse in its lack of emotion—Crane is an object, already a corpse in Collins’s hands—but this perversity, being absent elsewhere in Collins’s work, is refreshing. It seems fitting, then, that Collins omits this poem from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, which includes only the safest poems from his first book. (Of the 45 poems in that book, 15 appear in Sailing Alone Around the Room.) So “Child Development,” in which he refers to Samuel Johnson as a “fatuous Enlightenment hack,” is gone, perhaps because it might offend someone. He also omits “Cancer,” which addresses the difficulty of saying the word and in an unexpected, moving conclusion, applies this difficulty to the poet’s father, who apparently suffers from the disease. Such pain, however genuine, does not earn a place in the Collins canon. And when cancer is allowed into the New and Selected Poems, it’s only through a humorous simile, in “My Number,” in which death is “busy … scattering cancer cells like seeds.” And “Flames,” which portrays Smokey the Bear setting a forest on fire “to show them / how a professional does it” does not make the cut. Though little more than a bad joke, the poem demonstrates a spark, at least. Collins omits even the minor terror of “Hopeless But Not Serious,” in which “every morning begins like a joke” and “trouble is you cannot remember the punch line / which never arrives until very late at night, / … just before you begin laughing in the dark.”

Originally buried on page 50 of The Apple That Astonished Paris, eleven poems from the end of the book, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” is given pole position in the New and Selected Poems. A reader unfamiliar with Collins could not be blamed for expecting a political poem (gun control being an ever-contested issue in the United States), or at least a poem with an edge. That reader, of course, finds something else instead—safe wit, a dog “sitting in the orchestra” to accompany a symphony by Beethoven “as if Beethoven / had included a part for barking dog.” The title, then, remains outside the poem, as a joke framing it, and this indirect relationship emerges as the poem’s primary strength. Given the shallowness of most of Collins’s work, a title that does not comment straightforwardly on the poem seems like an achievement.

It becomes easy to predict which poems from Collins’s earlier books will be chosen for the New and Selected: those that are thoroughly safe, tentatively clever, and aiming to please—or to be less generous: those that are passionless, shallow, and obsequious. It also helps if the poems take place in museums, on vacation in Italy, in libraries, or on college campuses: apparently the favorite haunts of the NPR-listening audience Collins depends on so much for his book sales. To jettison the macabre and the disturbing from one’s New and Selected smacks of self-censorship, and is especially unfortunate given the broadening effects those elements would have on this career- and income-boosting volume.

Charles Simic has noted that “Collins is fun to read” even though “he has absorbed all the modernist techniques and uses them well.” Unfortunately, Simic does not articulate what these techniques are, aside from calling Collins “self-consciously literary” and pointing to his homages to Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden. In any event, despite their allusions and occasional self-consciousness, Collins’s poems read nothing like Pound’s, Eliot’s, Stevens’s, Moore’s, Crane’s, Stein’s, or any other poet considered modernist, and the claim seems contradictory, since modernism is apparently what killed the popular audience for poetry.

Simic is more accurate when he points to the Collins persona: “Collins comes across in his poems as a slightly eccentric but friendly neighbor, a professor with a nice wife in some affluent suburb or small town, who walks his dog and does the usual errands and chores associated with that kind of life” (italics mine). In other words, simply SWM. In his poems, Collins is not seriously eccentric or misanthropic, his wife does not make his life difficult, he has no financial worries, he does not beat or otherwise abuse his dog (Collins likes his dog, but not enough to give it a name in his poems, perhaps because he wants his dog to be the NPR ur-dog) or neglect or bemoan his position in the social fabric. Simic adds, “Probably one of the reasons for the success of his books is that he gives the impression to his readers of being like them.” Collins himself claims no ambition to disturb his readers: “I want to establish a kind of sociability or even hospitality at the beginning of a poem. The title and the first few lines are a kind of welcome mat where I am inviting the reader inside.” Given the commercial success of Collins’s books, he must be an accommodating host.

Yet Simic also admits that in Sailing Alone Around the Room “too many poems have predictable conclusions.” And “Collins is so much in control that by the end of a poem I’m left with the feeling that I’ve been told everything that there is to know. … there has to be a countercurrent, a touch of ambiguity and uncertainty” to keep things interesting if not edgy. This gentle criticism coincides with Collins’s own description of his process in his Paris Review interview: “I want to start in a very familiar place and end up in a strange place.” But his poems fail to tell the reader what the reader does not already know. One learns almost nothing from Collins. This is probably why he has become a popular success. Ever palatable, never disturbing, Collins is a poet for everyone. And that is the problem.

I am not arguing for accessibility as an end or cure-all, nor as a mean toward a larger readership. Because poetry is often difficult to write, it can be difficult to read and still be valuable to culture. It is especially difficult to write strong, accessible poetry that does not pander to the reader. Yet when a poet comes along who can gaze outward as powerfully as s/he gazes inward and write poems compelling at the levels of language, perception, and imagination, the virtues of accessibility are realized—at least in the case of David Berman’s Actual Air—and readers will notice.

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