Billy Collins on the Mind

I have Billy Collins on the mind today, and I admit this isn’t a typical thing. I haven’t taught his work in at least five years, since I last taught Intro to Poetry and used his collection Sailing Around the Room as a means to show students that poetry can indeed be accessible, even funny. I have Billy Collins on my mind, though, because of an interview I heard yesterday that he did with Diane Rehm of NPR. He was there to discuss his new book, The Rain in Portugal. For a moment, I almost shrugged and shut off the interview, but then I pondered why I didn’t want to listen to him. He is, after all, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and someone whose work often made me laugh in the past. Yet, as one of the callers noted, there has long been a backlash against Collins’ work. For some, his work isn’t academic enough. For others, his poetry doesn’t follow any conventional forms (which certainly isn’t true). And yet, he, along with Mary Oliver, who also faces similar criticism, are probably the two most well-known living American poets in existence, other than maybe W.S. Merwi or Sharon Olds. How many other poets even get an interview on one of NPR’s most well known programs?

I’m glad I kept the interview on because there are several points Collins made about poetry that could be seen as a reflection of his own work. He noted that when he gave a reading in a rural community years ago, one of the attendees called his work “prose.” But as Collins noted, anyone who has been paying attention to poetry since Modernism in the early 20th Century will know that poetry moved away from fixed forms about 100 years ago. If  we want to be really picky, we can go back to Whitman, a few decades before Modernism. The attendee’s comment, however, speaks to the fact that many American don’t pay that much attention to modern poetry and therefore believe it should operate in fixed forms and employ tight meters and end rhymes. Even the title of Collins new book challenges that notion. It isn’t titled the Rain in Spain, but rather, the Rain in Portugal, challenging expectations of what poetry should be. Collins probably has the biggest audience of readers than any current living American poet. I am certain, in fact, that his new book, published by Random House, one of the largest existing publishing houses, will earn him even more readers. I’m sure, too, that when some of them open the book, they may be surprised how Collins is able to write about ordinary things (which also became more accepted under the guise of Modernism nearly), and that he rarely writes formalist verse.

There is something to be said, too, for the fact that Collins work is SO accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have punch or that he’s not capable of writing about serious subjects, but Collins is a far cry from John Ashbery or any of the other New York School poets that are still all the rage in a number of well-known lit mags. (When is this imitation going to end?) I found myself really agreeing with Collins on one point during the interview. He doesn’t like poems that start with the obscure. For him, that violates the trust of the reader. He stated that it’s okay for a poem to eventually become difficult and obscure, but only after the reader’s trust has been earned. That’s something to ponder.

Billy Collins may be a celebrity in poetry, but widening the audience for the genre is a good thing. I think we should be a little easier on Collins and at least be happy that someone with such a large profile is out here as  a poetry advocate.




2 thoughts on “Billy Collins on the Mind

  1. David J. Bauman says:

    Brian, please pardon the long response. A friend and I were talking about this recently. Sometimes it has bugged me that because I loved Collins so much I went and bought every Collins book I could find. After that kind of saturation, you get the feeling that often there is a bit of a gimmick to his writing. And it did bother me that, especially between The Trouble with Poetry and Ballistics, he seemed to spend so much time writing meta-poems, poems about writing poetry. And yet, as you said, he’s still become more mainstream popular than most other poets.

    That could be part of the problem for the post-modern language poets, as well as those of us who have long adored him–jealousy? I confess to it myself. But it’s more than that, admittedly, maybe a feeling of disappointment sometimes. Like when you figure out who the killer is too quickly in an Agatha Christie book. We enjoyed him so much that we feel a letdown when we see the pattern too easily? Is it something about the way that we love our favorite team so much that we are their worst critic sometimes?

    And while I don’t always agree with Collins in how a poem should be read out loud or the way the lines should end, I respect where he’s coming from., and I do agree with much of his philosophy. That bit of starting in the real world and taking the reader to Oz, but not starting out already down the rabbit hole with nothing familiar to get you started. Anyway, I am rambling, but I agree with you. We’ve maybe gotten too hard on him. In the end, regardless of those occasional feelings of, oh he did that again, the truth of the matter is that I still look forward to reading him or listening to him. He’s still the brilliant and tender poet who wrote “The Names” after 9/11. And he still can surprise me.

    And the New York School imitation has gotten truly old. At least if they had to keep doing that could someone please continue where Frank O’Hara left off instead of the constant stringing together of initially intriguing sounding phrases that ultimately not only are meaningless, but devoid of any true soul, emotion, or beauty?

  2. Brian Fanelli says:

    This is a thoughtful post, David, and I appreciate it. I do agree with you regarding the meta aspect of Collins’ work and the number of poems he has about poetry. In fact, the new book has at least one other one entitled “On Rhyme,” which he read on the air. Part of this may have to due with the fact that Collins knows what his readers like and somewhat sticks to it. He has an equal number of poems about dogs. But yes, he can still surprise, such as the poem “The Names,” which you mentioned.

    Part of the gimmick could also be the fact that Collins has broken so many sales records for poetry and is with a huge publisher that he may face pressure to meet those high numbers upon the release of each book, hence sticking to what works. Regardless, as I stated and you have stated, I am glad he is still around and draws so much attention to contemporary poetry.

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