issue 4: spring 2002

> Paul Stephens

> Letters to Author

An Apology for Poetry, or, Why Bother With Billy Collins?

Review of Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room: Random House, 2001.

     Billy Collins is, after Jewel, America’s best-selling poet. He rose to fame by being a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show. Last year he received a million-dollar book contract from Random House. (There are probably fewer than ten poets in the world who can make a living strictly from book royalties–most others teach.) Billy Collins is now Poet Laureate of the United States.

     He is a very bad poet. At best, he is a very mediocre humorist.

     Billy Collins is to good poetry what Kenny G is to Charlie Parker; what sunset paintings at the mall are to Jackson Pollock; what Rod McKuen is to Walt Whitman; what Tori Spelling is to Lana Turner; what the burkha is to lingerie; what the Backstreet Boys are to the Beatles; what George W. Bush is to the art of extemporaneous speech; what Osama bin Laden is to women’s liberation; what Dan Quayle is to spelling; Billy Collins is to poetry what the New Age/Mysticism section in the bookstore is to the Philosophy section, assuming that those two sections haven’t been conflated yet down at your local Barnes and Noble.

     I could go on with list. But I don’t mean to suggest that Collins is kitsch, for though Collins may sometimes make gestures toward kitsch, he is very much working in a quasi-high culture mode, even if he occasionally tries to hide the fact. Many of his poems are supposedly witty responses to earlier famous poems (e.g. a poem titled "Dancing Towards Bethlehem"). Collins may not be a very learned poet, but he is not kitsch; Collins is much less interesting than kitsch–he is strictly banal, he wants us to know how uncomfortably banal poetry is, and he does a very good job of making us not want to read poetry any more. The banality of the title of his new Selected Poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, pretty much says it all. The problem is that with his newfound prestige Collins is no longer sailing by himself.

     The dominant impression one gets when reading a Collins poem is one of sheer lack of ambition:

  The Lesson

In the morning when I found History
snoring heavily on the couch,
I took down his overcoat from the rack
and placed its weight on my shoulder blades.

It would protect me on my cold walk
into the village for milk and paper
and I figured he would not mind,
not after our long conversation the night before.

How unexpected his blustering anger
when I returned covered with icicles,

the way he rummaged through the huge pockets
making sure no major battle or English queen
had fallen out and become lost in the snow.

There is nothing engaging whatsoever about the construction of this poem. The prosaic domestic setting is typical of a Collins poem. There is in fact no specific "History" to speak of. "History" becomes a sort of non-threatening daydream of some past life where things might actually have been interesting. This is not the history of the twentieth century, of which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus could say, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Unlike some of his great predecessors–Dickinson, Stevens, or Williams come to mind–Collins is absolutely unable to make the domestic setting into something striking, into something beyond casual boredom. And even if Collins’ goal is to make us feel his boredom, he does a poor job. To write interestingly of boredom or ennui is something very few writers–and here Beckett and Kafka come to mind–can do well. All that Collins’ writing about boredom does is make us feel complacent, and perhaps a little weary. The only lesson of the poem "The Lesson" might be that both capital-h History and capital-p Poetry are a kind of irrelevant nostalgia that Collins isn’t much interested in. While capital-p Poetry probably could use a dressing down, Collins is hardly the person to do it.

     Billy Collins is a very bad poet, and the saddest part is that no one will bother to say so.

     It may have been common knowledge since long before the Romans that there is no disputing concerning taste–but the degree of silence from established poets and critics surrounding Collins’ rise is remarkable (especially the silence from ostensibly avant-garde poets and critics). Those in the know in poetry terms know that Collins is a bad poet–but no one writes bad reviews of poetry books, and Collins is no exception to the rule. The audience for poetry is already so limited–perhaps the argument goes–that why should we bother to criticize Collins’ book sales? Or maybe for some mainstream poets the argument runs along the lines of: If I criticize Collins then maybe he or one of his acolytes will choose not to give me that book award the next time I’m up for one. Or perhaps the feeling is that it’s elitist to criticize popular taste. But isn’t it even more elitist and condescending to assume that the majority of poetry readers cannot hope for something better than Billy Collins?

     The world of contemporary American poetry may be lamentably insular to outsiders, but it is still capable of producing provocative, engaging work–and the best of that work is not designed for a coterie audience. Frank O’Hara is an example of a poet whose work can be extraordinarily accessible and teachable, and yet can hardly be confused with capital-p Poetry.

The problem with Billy Collins is not just that he is a bad poet; the problem is that there is a great deal of condescension inherent in a culture of publishers and reviewers who see no problem with promoting this kind of dumbed-down poetry–either actively, or by tacitly saying nothing about its badness. When I go to the Science section of the bookstore and buy an introductory work for non-specialists by someone like Stephen Hawking or Brian Greene or Stephen Jay Gould, I will be buying a book that may not claim to be the definitive specialist’s analysis of the latest scientific problems–but I will still be buying a book that is challenging and sophisticated. On the other hand, when someone goes into the bookstore to buy an accessible book of poetry–if they buy Billy Collins at least–they are being given something entirely dull and unchallenging that claims to be the best and most sophisticated work of its kind, by a man who now holds the prestigious position of Poet Laureate. If poetry has poets like Billy Collins for its advocates, then poetry is better off without advocates. We might as well elect Deepak Chopra to be our National Philosopher.

     The problem of Billy Collins, as I have said, goes beyond Billy Collins himself. Collins is a product of the workshop poetry culture and oddly enough his funniest poems are those that critique his own profession (for instance the poem "Workshop"). There are now 300 graduate writing programs in the U.S. Before World War II there was one. No one seems to know quite what to do with the immense profusion of poetry writing. Critiques of writing programs abound and need to be taken seriously–but perhaps as a first step we need to start with more honestly critiquing poets and poetry itself. Billy Collins’ solution to his obvious dislike of his own profession is to trivialize it. But Billy Collins has done such a poor job of trivializing his job that realistically he ought to have found a different line of work long ago.

     Poetry editors, publishers, promoters, and teachers (in both English and Creative Writing departments) might do well to consider the gentle reminder of Emerson in The American Scholar: "There is creative reading as well as creative writing." Many of the most interesting American poets have continued to engage with the challenging, difficult (and often political) writing of the great Modernist writers. The workshop poets have by and large ignored Modernist writing and satisfied themselves with romanticized nineteenth century models of poetry as emotional experience within the domestic arena. Billy Collins is a new development for workshop poetry because he has lowered the stakes. Billy Collins’ poems deliver the quintessential New Age message: Relax, it’s OK to be yourself, the world is kind and gentle and mildly amusing and will eventually take care of you. Lyric poetry no longer has to be emotionally intense (in the workshop model) or intellectually stimulating (in the avant-garde model)–it merely needs to be mildly clever and not too discomforting. Collins has brought bad, trivial poetry to a new level of prestige. There is nothing wrong with light verse–some of the greatest poetry is light verse–but there is much that is wrong with this kind of light verse. We need to expect more from poets and especially from critics, and perhaps the readers will follow when they have something that doesn’t lead them by the ears as if they were in need of canned laughter. "Of American poets," Frank O’Hara once wrote, "only Whitman and Williams and Crane are better than the movies." For my part, I’ll take a second-rate sit-com rerun over Billy Collins any day.

> Paul Stephens

> Letters to Author

more reviews of Billy Collins:
> http://www.webdelsol.com/CPR/Hilbert/Collins.htm



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