issue 4: spring 2002

> Paul Stephens

Letters to the Author:


Three questions:

1. Where did Paul Stephens come up with the idea that Billy Collins has a million dollar contract with Random House? If he was being hyperbolic, this needs to be explicitly stated. If this is a readily known fact, the reader ought to be told where he came up with it.

2. Why does Stephens pretend to such incredible ignorance; why has he not read any of the many negative, and more maturely stated, reviews of Collins to date before suggesting, rather childishly, that there is some conspiracy of silence surrounding Collins and his poetry?

3. Why did you publish a piece that carries over the simplistic, arrogant tone of a small town newspaper editorial opinion piece in a journal ostensibly devoted to serious writing? After reading this "review", one is simply inclined to go out and support poor Collins, since the review gives little or no evidence, as such, that his writing is bad, much less what constitutes good and bad poetry.

If one is really so concerned with serious writing, I suggest that it makes more sense to quietly support such writing than to put out narrow attacks. There is more to the Collins phenomenon than that "he is a very bad poet and no one seems to say so." As for a perfunctory jab at the dreadful workshop culture of American universities, that would be better left to a more clearly presented critique of the American university system as a whole.

As I.A. Richards once remarked, when referring to stupid remarks made by English "majors" at Cambridge: perhaps such obtuse comments are "a product of the most expensive kind of education.

Ernest Hilbert


Ernest Hilbert's poetry and criticism have appeared in The Boston Review, LIT, Pleiades, The American Scholar, Verse, American Writing, Fence, The Cortland Review, and Slope. He is the Director of the Literature Section at nowCulture.com and an editor for Random House¹s online literary magazine Bold Type, www.boldtype.com. He has interviewed and published numerous well known authors and prepared a series of reviews and audio downloads for the Voice of the Poet Series in conjunction with MP3Lit.com, a Salon.com subsidiary. He has also written on novelists, such as John Updike, and art history for Bold Type.He has a regular e-mail column of literary and publishing information, E-Verse Radio, which has gone out to 800 readers since 1999.

He is also the North American liaison of the Parisian literary magazine Upstairs at Duroc and is on the staff of the Contemporary Poetry Review, www.cprw.com.
Hilbert received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master¹s Degree in English Literature and founded the Oxford Quarterly. While Editor of the Oxford Quarterly, he published Andrew Motion, the current Poet Laureate of Britain, and dozens of authors, including Mark Strand, David Mamet, Jorie Graham, Anthony Hecht, and Adrienne Rich; he also recruited Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and the late Iris Murdoch for the magazine¹s advisory board. He later worked as an editor for the Beat and punk culture magazine Long Shot in New York City, www.longshot.org, founded in 1982 by Danny Shot and Eliot Katz in part with money donated by Allen Ginsberg.

He lives in New York City.


Dear Mr. Hilbert,

I am surprised and perplexed by the degree of vitriol you exhibit in
responding to my piece on Billy Collins. As someone with a doctorate in
English literature, you are no doubt aware that lambasting the poet laureate
is a long and revered English tradition (think of Byron, Shelley, and
Browning and their no-holds-barred attacks on Wordsworth). Or consider the
famous lines from Don Juan:

Bob Southey! You're a poet, poet laureate
And representative of all the race.
Although 'tis true you turned out a Tory at

I am not exactly sure what you are trying to defend in your response, but it
doesn't appear to be Billy Collins (of whose work you offer no examples).
Nor do you seem to be defending what you call, in your words, the "dreadful
workshop culture." Maybe it's the Bob Southeys of the world you are
defending, except that comparing Bob Southey to Billy Collins is like
comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to Louis Bonaparte-the first time may have been
a tragedy but the second time is a farce.

In response to your questions:

1. As someone who works (or at least edits a journal) for a subsidiary of
Random House, I would think that you would have a much better idea of the
details of Billy Collins' contract than I would-since the exact details of
his contract have never, to my knowledge, been made public. However, (via a
quick check of Lexis-Nexis) I was able to determine from The Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette (April 30, 2000) that Collins was paid roughly $100,000 for
three books, as well as receiving an undisclosed six-figure price on 45
poems that were owned by University of Pittsburgh Press. It is possible,
though admittedly unlikely, that those six-figures could have surpassed
$900,000. The article didn't specify this, but surely royalties would be in
addition to the $100,000 amount. Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. Collins is
well-paid on the reading circuit, and is holding down a teaching job in
addition to his book sales. So we both know that Collins is very well-off
up there in Westchester. (Alas, Drunken Boat doesn't have the fact-checkers
available at a place like Random House.)

2. You accuse me of "incredible ignorance" for not having read any of the
"many other negative, and much more maturely stated, reviews of Collins."
(Maturity? Remember this review is in a journal whose name comes from
Rimbaud-what would he think of Billy Collins?) In fact I have read some of
these reviews, such as John Palattella's excellent review in the LA Times or
Adam Kirsch's piece in the New Republic. At the time that I wrote the
review in November, neither of these reviews had been published. What had
been published was the NY Times' glowing review, as well as many of Collins'
poems in The New Yorker. The Drunken Boat lag time in publishing the review
may somewhat mute my complaints as to the silence of reviewers with respect
to Collins' badness. But I stand by my position that critiques of Collins
are very unlikely to come from those poets who are implicated in workshop
culture. Overall, reviews of Collins have still been overwhelmingly
favorable, and I have yet to see one well-known poet published by a major
press criticizing Collins.

3. You say that "the review gives little or no evidence, as such, that his
writing is bad." But I do quote an entire Collins poem, and I do give
reasons for its badness. I'm surprised to find you disagreeing with the
evidence. Having glanced at your poetry online you seem to write poetry in
the allusive, sophisticated, formal, historically aware, high culture mode
of Anthony Hecht or James Merrill or Richard Howard or John Hollander-the
kind of poetry that a poem like Collins' facile "History" implicitly
dismisses. I happen to believe that New York School and Language poetries
are the most relevant and ambitious movements in contemporary poetry-and
Collins' work implicitly dismisses those kinds of writing as well. But my
review does not depend exclusively on my championing these kinds of writing.
I would think, based on reading your poetry, that you would sympathize with
my general argument about Collins' poetry being "dumbed-down," even if you
see things from a more formalist perspective. My main complaint is that
putting Collins forward as the best that American poetry has to offer is an
insult to the intelligence of the reading public, both inside and outside of
universities. You offer no examples of what you might find worthwhile,
interesting, or provocative in Collins' writing, but you do suggest that
"after reading this 'review,' one is simply inclined to go out and support
poor Collins." But Collins isn't poor and he is a public figure and that's
my point-why shouldn't we criticize his shortcomings as well criticizing the
shortcomings of the poetry culture that he represents? I would have
significant reservations about publishing so harsh a review of a young,
struggling poet. But do you really think that Billy Collins is the best
candidate out there for poet laureate? I don't care for Collins' poetry,
nor do I think you do particularly-so why not say so? It reminds me of a
remark that Helen Vendler made at the New School on a panel about poetry
reviewing-with respect to Adam Kirsch's then-recent negative review of Jorie
Graham in The New Republic. Kirsch had been Vendler's student, and she said
of the review that he ought not to be "continuing his education in public."
But Kirsch's review was perceptive and honest-for him Graham's poems had
developed into soft Heideggerian platitudes. Jorie Graham, like Billy
Collins, should be able to handle the flack-and since Helen Vendler has been
the main champion of Graham's work for decades, that's not where honest
appraisals of Graham's work are likely to come from. Kirsch, to his credit,
was one of the few major publication reviewers to take on Collins.
Unfortunately, Kirsch may be the exception that proves the rule.

Nowhere in my review did I use the term "conspiracy of silence" with respect
to Collins, but I do maintain that creative writing programs, literary
awards, and major press poetry publishing all contribute to a reticence on
the part of poets to honestly criticize one another's work-or indeed, the
kinds of lyric crisis poems that they may be writing. Literature
departments too should be taking more interest in contemporary writing. Not
incidentally, I am implicated in one kind of institution, you in some other
kind(s)-though you don't seem to admit that that might have any influence on
your opinions of Collins.

I'm not sure what you mean when you disparage my review by referring to it
as "a product of the most expensive kind of education." It's very strange
when the Oxford PhD accuses the Columbia PhD candidate of being
overeducated. You ought to be kinder toward your alma mater. But perhaps
you are implying that I'm voicing the literature department party line with
respect to workshop poetry. That may be true, but the situation is
significantly more complex. No one in English departments these
days-despite our vaunted interest in cultural studies-takes much notice of
Billy Collins or workshop poetry. Perhaps you are voicing a kind of
dissatisfaction with the current forms of intellectualism in English
departments-with the postcolonial, Marxist, feminist, and experimental
writers that find literature departments much more hospitable than writing
departments. Maybe that's what you think is going on in the bars around
Columbia, just as it's probably going on in the bars around Oxford. Be that
as it may, it doesn't seem to be going on in Billy Collins' head. Workshop
culture has been extraordinarily effective in minimizing the impact of
experimental modernism-and it has also been very good at insulating itself
from contemporary developments within intellectual culture. The writer to
watch out for is the one who claims not to be implicated by any form of
institution or ideology.

To Columbia's discredit, Billy Collins taught a writing workshop here last

Paul Stephens

P.S. When I wrote the preceding, I was unaware that you yourself had
written a review of Billy Collins. I wonder why you didn't mention it? I
plead "incredible ignorance" and "immaturity" for having been unaware of it.
But I am perhaps more puzzled than ever with respect to the ad hominem
animus you display toward me, since you too express serious reservations
about aspects of Collins' work. Perhaps the central issue we disagree on is
the intelligence of the average reader. You illustrate perfectly what I
mean about the condescension publishers have for readers when it comes to
advocating Billy Collins, when you say:

[Billy Collins'] is a poetry of commentary. It is not reflexive (in a
serious way) or process-oriented. This is why it works for so many readers.
The vox populi may never absorb the qualities praised in advanced poetry
over the past century. Ambiguity is pointless when it comes to engine
repair or financial accounting. These tactics smack of corporate lawyers
slithering from the yoke of responsibility to commonweal or individual. Why
should one be compelled to pay for (or, for that matter, pray for) something
he can not see? Again, art, entertainment, commerce, and custom settle into
battle for an unenthusiastic mob.
Outside the Coliseum, however, Collins offers a palatable message to
occasional readers of poetry: things are not perfect, but they certainly are
not as horrid as they might be.

Yes, indeed, "Collins offers a palatable message." Collins to placate the
plebeians, with "advanced poetry" reserved for the patricians. I'm daunted
(not to mention frightened) by the Coriolanus-like rhetorical flair of your
prose with its Eliotic contempt for the mob-but can we not, like Coriolanus,
hope that "there is a world elsewhere" for readers of contemporary poetry?



I am flattered by your long response to the letter I fired off to your editor. Perhaps I was a bit hasty and, for that matter, nasty. I just didn't understand the incredible ire of your piece. I agree with it, for the most part, but was disinclined to endorse with the style in which it was presented. And yes I was being hypocritical when referring to expensive educations, though my time at Oxford was much more affordable than comparable time would have been at Columbia, which was the other graduate school I had narrowed my choices down to at the time (as the only two I felt were worth attending; this was back in 1994, and I hope the same remains true today; even with scholarships I received at the time, I am burdened by incredible student loans).

At any rate, I do agree with your position but was put off by the excitable style in which it was presented. Given the general thrust of Drunken Boat, perhaps it was more appropriate than I had at first realized. It seems to me, however, that the subject deserves more attention, more time. Of course the poet laureate sucks. It's easier than ever to lob grenades into the tower with Collins in there. But what precisely is the good of a poet laureate? I never really understood why the position exists, but if it must, someone like Collins probably fits the bill best. I do agree that his poetry should not be touted as the best that American poetry has to offer (any more than most of what turns up in Lehman's annual Best), but publishers exist to sell books. They are businesses, and the days of gentlemen publishers have for the most part passed. What I attempted to do in my essay in the CPR was try to figure out, to some degree, what Collin's success is owed to.

Having said all this, I would prefer we call a cease fire, as the world is filled with enough conflict. We are more likely allies, unfortunately made temporary enemies when I wrote a letter to your editor before allowing my coffee to sink in that morning. Thank you for taking the time to write.


Ernie Hilbert


Dear Ernie,

Truce accepted. I think both of us are agreed that Billy Collins is more
interesting as a cultural phenomenon than as a poet, and that Collins is not
so much funny as he is fun to make fun of. Billy Collins is not so much the
object of my ire as are the institutions which promote and disseminate
feeble, godawfully boring, predominantly confessional, "dumbed-down,"
"official verse culture" poetry. I think Billy Collins, despite his
middlebrow LITE-FM posture, is proscribed culture to a much greater degree
than most people realize. Charles Bernstein remarks, "There's more
innovation and more cultural acumen in any episode of 'Ren and Stimpy' than
in any of the books of our last trio of national poet laureates." Why? In
this vein, I recommend Bernstein's essays "Against National Poetry Month As
Such" http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/044106.html and "Water
Images of the New Yorker."

Paul Stephens



This article, and more like it, is much needed if poetry is ever to abandon
"po' biz" for art, and I forwarded it to every poet I am online with. If you
published a print edition, I'd subscribe. Keep up the good work.

George Held


> Paul Stephens


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