Thursday, April 26, 2012

oh, come on now

“Foundling” by Billy Collins - Slate Magazine:

Former American poet laureate Billy Collins has a nicely honed knack for writing about the small things that  go on his life, finding a convincing means, more times than not, of tying the details of the banal and mundane into a larger idea, lest those who assume poetry ought to be about "heavy things" feel left out of the conversation he starts. Collins is careful, though, not to  get too profound and smartly lets the intellectually perplexing elements of his poetry recede and become texture in favor of something arresting, something cute being revealed, a sudden perception that wasn't there when the narrator first started his discourse. It is a formula Collins uses well; the downside of it all is that it is clear that the good poet won't be digging deeper into the soil anytime soon.

In the meantime, he is allowed to wallow in his stylistics and offer his readers the laziest example of his approach, in this case a poem called "Foundling". The narrator strays across the page writing in mock wonder that he is given a life of writing things down, things seen, heard, felt, with it in mind to compose a poem for an audience that wishes , presumably, that hey had the depth of perception the man holding the pen possesses. In any case, it proceeds as a typical poem-about-poetry, that retrofitted trope that serves the writer well when they have no clear idea of which way to do with a poem they've started--it is the equivalent of a jazz musician's fake book--but it becomes ridiculous by the last stretch. Collins remembers clearly, with snap shot clarity, being a baby being somewhat perturbed at being left alone , outside, on a winter's day, in a sewing basket, defiantly sticking his tongue out  at the sky, his first act of defying fate  and all other Higher Powers. Then the clever ending, the response of the invisible gods, a snow flake falls and drifts toward him. Aspects of Collins' audience-ready poetry bordered on the trite and ephemeral sentiment of greeting cards and books of spiritual feel-goodism, but there was a slight trace of cynicism, a realism that kept the poems from becoming merely therapeutic. This conceit, though, is unbelievable even for a form as permissive as poetry, where the only real rule is whether you have the chops to pull off an idea. Collins has chops, but they need sharpening.

Cute, of course, but this is a cartoon, and not a funny one either, not clever, not thought provoking, just time filling. I think of a doodles one draws on notepads and then tosses into the trash can when the boss enters the work space. This ought  to have been shoved in a drawer and then forgotten about. Billy Collins can do better, we know. He ought to  have known better as well.