Thursday, April 26, 2012

oh, come on now

“Foundling” by Billy Collins - Slate Magazine:

Former American poet laureate Billy Collins has a skill for writing about the small things that go on in his life, finding an effective means, more times than not, of tying the details of the banal and mundane into a more significant 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 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 they had the depth of perception the man holding the pen possesses. It proceeds as a typical poem-about-poetry, that retrofitted banality  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.

How unusual to be living a life of continual self-expression,
jotting down little things,
noticing a leaf being carried down a stream,
then wondering what will become of me,

and finally to work alone under a lamp
as if everything depended on this,
groping blindly down a page,
like someone lost in a forest.


 Aspects of Collins' audience-ready poetry bordered on the trite and ephemeral sentiment of greeting cards and books of spiritual feel-good, but there was a slight trace of cynicism. This realism kept the poems from becoming merely therapeutic. Collins remembers clearly, with snapshot 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 snowflake falls and drifts toward him. However, this conceit 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 doodles one draws on notepads and then tosses into the trash can when the boss enters the workspace. 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.

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