I remember overhearing a conversation at the conclusion of a poetry reading many years ago. Two very funny poets had read that night, Russell Edson and Bill Knott, who were in top form and had the audience laughing. “Weren’t they just great?” a woman said on the way out, and her companion agreed, “Yes, they were.” Then, he paused for a moment and added, “of course, you know, that was not really poetry.” It shocked me to hear him say that. He meant, I suppose, that poetry is serious and what these fellows just gave us was an evening of light entertainment. Probably, if he had been pressed to explain himself further, he would have argued that solemnity is the indication of weighty subject matter, while comedy at best is a pleasant diversion with no edifying lesson to teach. Of course, he is not alone in feeling that way. Let the poet mention the eternal beauties of nature and most readers are under the impression that something sublime is being said. Let him mention a hot dog on a bun and everybody knows instantly this man will never be Dante.
Anyone who thinks he knows what poetry is and takes the trouble to read widely in books and anthologies of the last forty years is bound to be infuriated. What one finds in them are poems based on such clashing ideas of poetry that if one were asked to point to a typical American poem of the period, one would have a hell of a time deciding what that is. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when the various poetic movements had labels and clearly defined positions to set them apart. There were the so-called Confessional Poets, Beats, New York Poets, Deep Image Poets, and the Black Mountain Poets. With their clannish loyalties, they resembled Mafia families, only they fought their wars in literary magazines rather than in the streets. There were a few independent poets who kept their own council, but most of the poetry being written at the time could be characterized as belonging to one of these groups. Such fierce commitments to a single aesthetic program weakened in the 1970s. Poets started to shop around. Mixing poetic styles as if they were ethnic cuisines is the rule today.
Readers and critics of poetry tend to have a far less wide-ranging taste than poets do. They have their own notion of what is “poetic” and what is not. The possibility, which contemporary American poetry amply demonstrates, that one can write a good poem from radically different premises, strikes them as nonsense. They believe in the eternal recurrence of the one true tradition throughout the ages to which all great poets pay homage. They may be right about that in some general way, except that’s not how it works in practice. The whole idea of the “poetic” is far more a historical variable than a definable and timeless property. Poets themselves are certainly of two minds about that. There are those who seek to give authority to their work by deliberately acknowledging an aspect of that tradition and there are those who yearn to slip out of its clutches entirely. The problem with any tradition is that it is also a storehouse of dead metaphors and clichés. As the late poet William Matthews observed some years ago, most of the poems one reads in literary magazines could be reduced to the following:
I went into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
We’re not getting any younger.
It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is soon spent and on we know not what.
Paradoxically, what has given American poetry its originality is this very suspicion of the “poetic,” combined with an extraordinary belief in poetry’s visionary powers. For both Billy Collins and James Tate, two poets only superficially alike, a poem presents an opportunity to get away from poetry. Never seen before, never heard before is what they hope for. They trust their comic sense to defend them against hackneyed rhetoric. As far as they are concerned, it is better to be accused of playing the fool than to be caught setting up the props and wearing the old costumes of some literary fashion.
Billy Collins, who was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in June, is an amazingly successful poet who did not publish his first book until he was past forty and whose book sales for a number of years now have quietly surpassed that of any other living or dead poet in this country. That a serious poet is widely read is a wonder to both his publishers and the press, who tend to write about him with the incredulity that would greet the discovery that Elvis Presley composed symphonies and string quartets in secret. Collins is fun to read, and modern poetry on the whole, despite much evidence to the contrary, is supposed to be incomprehensible. Nor does he shy away from imagination and stick to some version of plodding realism. He has absorbed all the modernist techniques and uses them well. In fact, what surprised me reading his selected poems, and what I had not noticed reading his individual connections over the years, is how self-consciously literary he is. Was it Novalis who said there is something astonishing in finding oneself writing a poem? That appears to be Collins’s predicament too. Here, for example, are how some of his poems start:
A sentence starts out like a lone traveler…
Even if it keeps you up all night, wash down the walls and scrub the floor of your study before composing a syllable…
(“Advice to Writers”)
The column of your book titles, always introducing your latest one, looms over me like Roman architecture…
(“The Rival Poet”)
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…
(“Introduction to Poetry”)
There are other poems in the selected poems that deal with poetry. “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey,” “American Sonnet,” “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” “Splitting Wood,” which takes after Frost, and one called “Monday Morning” that echoes Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”—and that’s not all of them. Collins is like a jazz musician quoting snatches of other tunes in his solo. He is telling the reader, I’m hip and you are hip. I will demystify poetry for you by letting you in on a secret. Even poets think poetry can be pretty silly at times. As Marianne Moore said, “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/discovers in/it after all, a place for the genuine.” Collins, who has a well-stocked literary mind and is not ashamed to show that he does, nonetheless shares her suspicion.
In the course of writing many poems, every poet ends up by constructing an identity which we as readers, gullible as we are, take to be his or her real self. We hate to think that all that supposed honesty might be a pose, a literary confidence trick to make one sound believable. In his recent and very funny Paris Review interview on the art of poetry, Collins says: “I try to start the poem conversationally. Poems, for me, begin as a social engagement. I want to establish a kind of sociability or even hospitality at the beginning of a poem. The title and the first few lines are a kind of welcome mat where I am inviting the reader inside.” Collins comes across in his poems as a slightly eccentric but friendly neighbor, a professor with a nice wife in some affluent suburb or small town, who walks his dog and does the usual errands and chores associated with that kind of life. He likes jazz, good food, a good story, and is doubtless someone you would love to spend an evening with. Probably one of the reasons for the success of his books is that he gives the impression to his readers of being like them. If they were ever to write poems, they think, this is how they themselves would write them.
How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every road sign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.
There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.
How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?
Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.
And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.
“Consolation” is a tongue-in-cheek poem in praise of the virtues of staying home. From the details provided, it is clear that the narrator has been to Europe. Being a tourist doesn’t really sound like such a horrible ordeal, but since he can’t go there this summer, he may as well make the best of staying home. Here at least, he reminds himself, one can eavesdrop on people and relish the local idiom. The point made is not new. Frost, Stevens, W.C. Williams, all argued along these lines for their refusal to become expatriates in the 1920s. If that red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens is not as interesting as a street scene in Paris, then there is no hope for American poetry.
“I want to start in a very familiar place and end up in a strange place,”[ ]Collins says in that same Paris Review interview. My complaint is that he doesn’t do this often enough in his selected poems. Despite all the funny and clever turns along the way, too many poems have predictable conclusions. One drawback of satire is that it has an agenda. It knows where it is going. Collins is so much in control that by the end of a poem I’m left with the feeling that I’ve been told everything that there is to know. Such clarity in a poet is admirable, but as Collins himself realizes there has to be a countercurrent, a touch of ambiguity and uncertainty, as it were. Not the kind that leads nowhere and makes the reader give up on the poem in no time, but the kind that draws us back into it. What one needs is some unexpected image or twist in the point of view that makes us realize that there’s more here than meets the eye. When that occurs, as in the following poem, when he seems to be surprising himself as much as he is surprising us, Collins is by any measure a very fine poet.