Showing posts with label Billy Collins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Billy Collins. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Collins in the Wall Street Journal


Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins,in a recent chat with a Wall Street Journal reporter, talked about "banging his head" against the likes of Joyce, Pound and their attendant difficulties and his eventual decision to align himself with poets like Philip Larkin and Robert Frost and "poets, who dare to be clear." Superb models to use if you're aspiring to write in contiguous sentences unmarred by needless line breaks. 

Poetry readers should be grateful that Collins found his voice in the place where the conversations are actually happening, in the world and not the rheumy chambers of a book-addled soul. Difficult poetry that is actually good is difficult to write, and there are only a few among the millions who do so who actually deserve attention,praise, and continued discussion. At this stage,it becomes increasingly the case that there are far too many poets in the world who are trying to out- perform Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Olson in pushing the limits of poetry; the last group I paid attention to who managed difficulty that intrigued, provoked and which stopped making sense in a variety of works that made younger poets like myself examine the tropes I was using and attempt, with some success, to put it back together again, perception and images in newer works that come  out  just a little more out of the long shadow of previous and still present genius. 

So thank you LeRoi Jones, Ron Silliman, Rae  Armantrout, Paul Dresman, Bob Dylan and a few dozen others read in fifty years of reading for helping me , no, forcing me beyond my self-entombing idea of genius and moving me closer to the public square. No longer a younger poet stumbling in his attempts to master what seemed to be fashion at hand, I'm  old enough to accept the less stringent view that the only criteria for judging a poem's style, format, complexity and other such matters is in how well it works  on the reader who is reading it? Difficult or clear as glass, does the poem make a music one wants to understand? 

Billy Collins, of course, has his own amazingly effective style of clear poetry, and it's a marvel  to read how he begins with a scene,a situation performing what is often a banal house- hold task--listening to jazz, paying bills, a drive in the country, a bit of coffee in the city--and then a reverie of a sort,a memory triggered by some inane object , a recollection often seasoned with a light application of Literary Reference, just enough to expand the notion or expose a contradiction in his own assumption (the insight often being a dead sage's warning or mere reflection about matters of pride and exaggerated expectations)And  then there's a seamless transition to the scene from where he began his writing, the material world unchanged but, for the rumination that we've just read, is not the same as it was.His genius and  flaw are  the same heightened talent, his ability to produce these compact missives of everyday wonderment continuously.That's not to denigrate his skill at writing them, as the economy of his language, the resourcefulness of his imagination to find new twists and inlets within the limits of his style, and the genuinely  resonating effect of his phrase-making mark a writer who works his pieces; he is a professional, aware of his audience, aware of his materials, an artist who refuses  to let any of his ideas get muddied by the pretense   of deeper intimations.William Carlos Williams had the view that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Whatever one seeks to describe in the world one sees is already complex . Collins, more so than Williams, explores connections , fleeting though they are , of the things around to the world his imagination creates a frame for when he departs from home. His strategies, of course, are more varied than what I've described, but this is a recipe he uses as often as not, a template he can expand, revise, contract at will,  a habit he does splendidly. This makes him a good artist, a good craftsman, but it is also something that makes me want to call him a writer rather a poet.

He is , I think, the equivalent of the old school local newspaper columnist who would, twice or thrice a week, write 700 words or so about something in the news, in his life, whatever comes to mind, who would end his reflection that effectively left the reader reassured and just a little confused as to the purpose of that day's topic. The secret, though, was less to give meaning to the community one recognizes, but rather create the sense of texture. Columnist and poet Collins have skills that remind of things that you cannot quite put a finger on--something is lost, something     is joyful, something is sad or funny, but how, why , what is it?

I might mention as well that Collins' work seems to be a sequence of experiences that are uninterrupted by work situations.Others can, I imagine, provide me with poems of his where work is an element, a strong one, perhaps even the subject of the poem, but it occurs to me that Collins , at least in many of his poems, is a flaneur, a walker in the city, a watcher, the character who observes, records, relates the isolated bits of daily experience, testing the limits of his ideas, constantly re-acquainting himself with his own fallibility. Please don't mistake that for a bad thing. It's nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Billy Collins' Neighborhood

Former U..S.Poet Laureate Billy Collins has made a career wrenching irony from the small things and people that occupy his corner of the world, something akin to Fred Rogers trudging into his apartment, talking to his unseen friend, and then revealing the unique wonders of the banal things that one might find in a single, middle-aged man's drab apartment. Collins' narrating presence booms all over his verses, soft, pleasant, melodious voice over a moderately amplified microphone, complete with windscreen, characterizing the houses, the workmen, the rote tedium of daily tasks done in homes and in small-town business districts.  It is not long, of course, before something makes the narrator expand this universe with an intervening sigh, a deep, worldly intake and release of air containing both stress and relief, like someone taking a bong hit, proceeding then to speak of those human conundrums that refuse to allow our lives to remain restful and fulfilling without interruption.  This neighborhood is a ganglion of bittersweet recollections, unpronounced love affairs, deferred passion, a corresponding universe of small matters, petty concerns twined together with a writer's straining sense of whimsy. I imagine this world as similar to a perverse Twilight Zone episode where the residents of a nostalgically named small town --Willoughby, anyone--live in knowing the terror of the Writer who lives down the street who stares out the window, lurks in coffee shops and public parks, observing, jotting notes into a notebook or typing them into a laptop, returning to his study by mid-afternoon and composing his scenarios based on what he has seen; inevitably, the procedures, made up of minor tragedies, crashing irony, practical jokes, or static sadness, materialize in the town, among the residents, a citizenry compelled to enact and fulfill the musings of a writer who is incapable of doing anything else other than reshuffling his templates, mix-and-match his scenarios. My problem with Billy Collins and this poem is that his pieces and t his poem end with a "characteristic Billy Collins twist," which is another way of saying that it reads like dozens of professionally constructed verses he has produced. In theory, a twist in a story is a turn that we didn't see coming, but if the twist is "characteristic," it stops being a surprise. The trick of anthropomorphizing nonhuman things--and that is precisely what it is, a joke--is ultimately a tedious way of talking about human vanity as age encroaches and one's last days near. It is the kind of poem that Collins dispatches with the uniform alacrity and craft a thrice-weekly op-ed columnist produces a quickly drawn essay; the repeated tropes, the favored conceits, the reiterations øf conventional cleverness --are soon enough revealed. I admire Collins the way I admire grade B film directors, who can produce endless fare with slight variation in quality. He is a poet who is vigorously the same after all this time.

 A vision of hell, I imagine, with the neighborhood transforming with new poetic unfoldings that are, in fact, a punning variation of jokes and anecdotes that have already been told. For the residents, I imagine living in the town of Billy Collins' evil twin controls. What began as a refreshing change from their daily lives has become a bother, a terror of mediocre surprise, the case when the Unexpected becomes the norm. For the reader, it is the kind of thing that makes you want to have been over the poet's shoulder while he wrote the poem in question and told him to stop.  "I've heard this joke before," you would say, "you need to write food reviews rather than poems. Please stop."

"Make it stop," a voice chimes in from the poem being written.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Low dose Irony with Billy Collins

Billy Collins writes as if he's a tourist in a gated reality, a walker in his town discovering and re-noticing the things and details of a community he has strolled through countless times, on countless days. He presents in ideas in tidy frames , discussing their parts with low doses of  irony, a splash of erudition, and then reassembling his subject so that it mostly resembles what it looked like before, if slightly reconfigured. This amounts to rearranging the same furniture in the same room much of the time, which means the element of surprise is no longer possible. His poetry is graceful and  amazingly approachable in its best form, but soon becomes formula . The reader, desiring a variation of something (much) darker or more difficult than the handy menu of resolutions that are Collins' stock-in-trade, finds it harder to distinguish the poet from a writer of light and limited amusements. His books are more interesting if you consider them the way you would be a new season of a favorite television drama;  whole new episodes that amount to new paint jobs on old story lines. This would allow you reap much more praise on Collins without the queasy  qualifiers that attend an honest appraisal of the work. He's writing the same old scenarios with absolute brilliance!!

"The Quaintness of the Past" is typical Billy Collins, the narrator, at home, reading a magazine in which he happens across a photograph that gets his attention and draws him in, an image of an old road house with a Plymouth parked in front. Where another poet would have done their best to merge with the contents of the photo and attempt a reconstruction of the lives, details and tone of the period with a vivid and often strained re imagining of a time they did not know first hand, Collins plays what is often his best card, the observer who wants to assemble his own version of the quaint image that caught his eye. He admits up front that he thinks for a moment of contriving his own memorable image, taking a snapshot of some random place in his neighborhood, perhaps the ideally described cafe near his home where he has coffee, a pastry and admires the French girls behind the corner, and then reappearing on this scene a hundred years later to experience how quaint and picaresque one's old time can appear, given enough distance.

The point Collins is getting at, not so subtly and in the plainest, least compelling language he can muster, is that our imaginations arrive on the scene before our eyes do. Instead of offering up a real image of things and places from another era and giving us a view of how life actually was, the narrative forms we've learned get the better of us and compel us instead to view the images as perfect arrangements of a sort, a world of harmony and natural order. Collins undermines this view and bluntly informs         us that the perfect arrangements and harmony are constructions based on our collective desire to believe that there was a better life in less complicated times. This habit is a generational yearning that gets pushed on to each succeeding generation, and he asserts that there will observers of future images from our time who will wish they had lived in the early 21st century, before the fall from grace.

There is a collective habit to distance ourselves from the past so that we might be able to construct an idea of a social perfection where the conflicts of our time melt away once we come to our senses. I think it less about the evasion of our deaths (although that is an implicit idea in the poem) than it is in the willing creation of various kinds of Heavens on Earth; what Collins does is step back from the encroaching nostalgia and sees himself inventing his narrative and thinking how he'd go about fabricating his evidence that what religion regards as reserved only for the after life--peace, harmony, serenity--is achievable while on earth. It is , of course, the problem with photography as a medium, discussed persuasively by Susan Sontag in her essay "On Photography"--that because the photograph seems to arrange it's accurate images of real things in well-balanced frames that suggest a natural set of relationships between the people and things in the image--forgetting, as often as not, the photographer's skill at manipulating what he or she is making a record of--there is a habit of mistaking the scenes as being free of editorial intervention.

From a distance of years, decades, the relationships seem without stress, conflict, and that becomes the mythologized Usable Past with which diverse populations--average citizens, politicians on the left and right, captains of industry, philosophers, and poets--  use to make sense of the current period. Collins , of course, cannot let his point stand by itself and supplies us with a Twilight Zone -like coda in the last verse, instructing his readers that this habit will go on long after our long speculations have turned to dust A large part of why Billy Collins has such a large readership is that besides from being superficially clever, he provides, often, a moral of the story, something that puts him more allied Rod Serling than the company of other poets. No offense to Serling or the Twilight Zone, a series I revere, but Collins' points, his lessons, his morals are obvious and smug, elements he can typically disguise with a judicious application of deflecting wit.His insight is that our plans seldom work out for us, but we continue our practices despite  evidence to the contrary, the lesson being that a utopia between our ears is better than no utopia at all. One senses Collins bemusement and comes away from his books feeling patronized. Here, though, his usually persuasive artifice can't make this poem seem anything more than a simple set up for a punchline, a clever ending. You've read this poem before, you've actually scanned the first line; you know exactly what he's going to do with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


D.G.Wills Books in LaJolla, California is a long time mecca for book lovers who crave a shop with a varied and deep selection literature, poetry and philosophy sections .Owner Dennis Wills, whom I've known (in full disclosure) since he opened his shop in 1979, has besides keeping his doors open , presented San Diego with an impressive roster of world-class literary events over the last few decades. Lucky for the rest of us that some of the most notable personalities were taped for future reference and are now available on D.G. Wills Books' own YouTube Channel, thanks to the curatorial efforts of bookstore associate and media specialist Bill Perrine. More of these remarkable events are being added. Meanwhile, enjoy the plenitude of what Wills hath wrought:Norman Mailer ,Allen Ginsberg,Oliver Stone, Billy Collins, Gore Vidal, Lawerence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder. I recommend checking back with channel from time to see who else has been added to this amazing and important archive of literary figures.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not Ballistic Enough

By Ted Burke


poems by Billy Collins (Random House)

Billy Collins writes poems that are literate, elegant, artfully crafted, and utterly coherent in the point he wants to get across , the feeling he want to evoke, the irony he wants to convey, and his ability to achieve all this in successive books in equally successive poems is both the attraction to his writing and what bores me silly. His new book, "Ballistics", is the writing of someone who wants to take the starch out of the image of poets and the willfully abstruse poems they compose. Rather, he pulls back the curtain and lets you see the process. Often enough he'll set up the scene, paint a picture, and then address the reader directly, aware that he writes verse that will be read by thousands of book buyers, and includes them in on the joke.

This is charming , of course, and one admires the grace with which Collins writes his lines--a better balanced set of free verse I've never seen, really--but for all the pleasure he provides for the painless duration of his poems and the usually flawless what-the-!@@1 surprises he offers up for the final stanza, a formulaic tedium sets in. Disguised as the essence might is, there are trace elements of journalistic efficiency here ; one notes the style, the arranging of details, how the poems start with an announcement of the poet beginning his day futzing around the house, walking into rooms, staring out the window, and then the intruding thought that distracts and manages to make the banal yet telling details of his home life and his community take on a more somber (or alternately, a giddier ) tone, a final, spare description of an item that eludes the metaphorical devices he's deployed, and then the twist, the coda, the pay off that makes you go ahhhh
as though his poems were nothing more than a fast swig from a cold soda. There is so little range to Collins' work that one thinks of a world stuck in one of those Mobius Strips MC Escher was wont to draw compulsively.

Collins writes poems about poetry, especially about the poet in the act of seeing something of the world as if for the first time, certainly as though a veneer had been stripped away and there was Truth Laid Bare, just the essentials of things and activities in themselves with their invisible ironies and vague meloncholies. So much of this is larded with self mystification that Collins, a wise cracker at heart, cannot help but but mock the poet as as lait priest; he gives you the nod and then the wink, and repeats until you get it.

August In Paris

I have stopped here on the rue des écoles
just off the boulevard St-Germain
to look over the shoulder of a man
in a flannel shirt and a straw hat
who has set up an easel and a canvas chair
on the sidewalk in order to paint from a droll angle
a side-view of the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?

Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together by a pin.

But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the turning of a page.

There is an efficiency of scene setting, tone and delivery of punchline that makes this a close cousin to prose, and there at times that one might mistake Collins, poet, for Dave Barry, humorist. He writes about being in Paris, at the cafe, in such an engaging way that it is possible for the untraveled among his readers to think what he does, or at least what he writes about, is the most natural thing in the world. One would nevermind that Collins scarcely writes about jobs he has had, rarely quotes those he has spoken with, or suspends or restrains the sense of his poised (but proclaiming) persona and concentrates on treating a set of ideas without his usual filter. He's mastered his tools and he cannot seem to go beyond the effects he's learned to create so flawlessly. Their dependability, though, is what makes them unmemorable once their page satisfactions have been had. I nod my head, I turn the page, I forget what I've just read.

It's like driving through an old neighborhood a few too many times; the ambivalence and nostalgic rushes no longer come after familiar buildings are viewed a hundred times too often. With the facile use of the names and pet phrases of Chinese poets, mentions of jazz greats, the sustained gazing upon still objects in and of themselves (doing nothing), the revitalization and one-dimensional ironizing of cliche, we arrive at a poet who has the mark of The Professional, "professional" in the same sense that a newspaper columnist is , a writer who is constantly preparing for the next piece, the race against a set deadline, the marshaling of all notes and ideas in the rush toward a finished set of statements. I remember I used to marvel at how elegant and spontaneously brilliant George Will seemed to be when his columns appeared two or three times a week, but after a while of reading him I recognized the formula he used to sustain his writerly flow. Collins, although not as prolific as Will is required to be, still produces an occasionally splendid poetry that does not challenge the mechanics required to write it at the same level of consistency; monotony is the result.