Billy Collins
Billy Collins; drawing by David Levine

1.

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:

  1. I went into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
  2. We’re not getting any younger.
  3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
  4. 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.

2.

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:

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A sentence starts out like a lone traveler…

(“Winter Syntax”)

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.

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p class=”initial”>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.

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p align=”center”>CONSOLATION

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.

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“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.

AFTERNOON WITH IRISH COWS

There were a few dozen who occupied the field
across the road from where we lived,
stepping all day from tuft to tuft,
their big heads down in the soft grass,
though I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty
as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching,
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appeared in the long quiet of the afternoons.

But every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal
that I would put down the paper
or the knife I was cutting an apple with
and walk across the road to the stone wall
to see which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her
gaping mouth.

Then I knew that she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
while she regarded my head and shoulders
above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.

As selected poems go, Sailing Alone Around the Room is not a big book. The poems date back only to 1988. Accordingly, Collins’s range is not great. One cannot really speak of his early and his late work. He has the same anxieties about poetry and his readers early on as he does in some of the final poems in the book. Just as that becomes a little annoying, he will turn around and write some exquisite lines and then an entire poem. “The Brooklyn Museum of Art,” “The Dead,” “The History Teacher,” “Nostalgia,” “Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales,” “The Blues,” and “Serenade” are first rate. It’s difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment.

3.

James Tate, who was born in 1943 in Kansas City, Missouri, has been a very prolific poet. I count thirteen major collections and two books of prose since his first volume The Lost Pilot (1967) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. This doesn’t include dozens of small press books that he brought out in the late 1960s and 1970s, all wildly experimental. He has received just about every prize that we give our poets, everything from the National Book Award to the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1992), and deservedly so. And yet, despite his many honors and a large following, there has been very little critical writing on his work. This comes as a surprise since there are full-length studies written on much younger and less substantial poets. Tate has made himself difficult to classify by writing many different types of poems, from straightforward lyrics in fairly plain style to poems so thick with images and metaphors that they are nearly unparaphrasable. The way the critics usually cope with him is to call him a Surrealist or a Dadaist and leave it at that. Unquestionably, like many other poets of his generation, Tate had read the French and Latin American Surrealists and under their influence filled his poems with poetic images that seemed to defy all laws of literature and common sense. Nevertheless, his taste for the absurd and the comic is purely American. If Tate is a Surrealist, he belongs to that native strain to which Mark Twain, Buster Keaton, and W.C. Fields also belong.

The comic sense and poetic imagination have much in common. They depend on juxtaposition in unlikely elements, the joining of two distant realities whose resemblance has not been grasped till that very moment. In Tate’s poems nothing is stable. The sudden eruption of metaphor is the only reality and that reality keeps changing. The poet is at the mercy of his imagination. He is a comic anti-hero seeking shelter in a house of cards his metaphors built. He knows his predicament is absurd; he also knows it’s exhilarating. That devil-may-care quality is already present in his first book of poems:

Look! I implore, who’s
sashaying across the Bad
Lands now—it’s trepid riding
Tate (gone loco in the
cabeza) out of his little
civilized element—Oh!
It’s bound to end in tears.

To write a poem out of nothing at all is Tate’s genius. For him, the poem is something one did not know was there until it was written down. Image evokes image, as rhyme evokes rhyme in formal prosody, until there is a poem. The poet is like a fortuneteller with a mirror and a dictionary. He’s trying to make sense and give identities to what at first appears to be the product of wild imaginings. With all his reliance on chance, Tate has a serious purpose. He’s searching for a new way to write a lyric poem. Here’s one from among numerous such examples, a poem seemingly about “nothing at all” from his book Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994).

THE WRONG WAY HOME

All night a door floated down the river.
It tried to remember little incidents of pleasure
from its former life, like the time the lovers
leaned against it kissing for hours
and whispering those famous words.
Later, there were harsh words and a shoe
was thrown and the door was slammed.
Comings and goings by the thousands,
the early mornings and late nights, years, years.
O they’ve got big plans, they’ll make a bundle.
The door was an island that swayed in its sleep.
the moon turned the doorknob just slightly,
burned its fingers and ran,
and still the door said nothing and slept.
At least that’s what they like to say,
the little fishes and so on.
Far away, a bell rang, and then a shot was fired.

Memoir of the Hawk, Tate’s latest collection, is a huge book of 172 prose poems, most of them no more than a page long. He had written prose poems before and scattered them throughout his books, but this huge, single-minded effort is unusual for him. For critics and poets who have difficulty accepting the idea that free verse can be poetry, prose poetry is still another hoax perpetrated by the same folks who brought us that other outrage: Modernism. It’s as implausible as a dog that sings opera. That prose poetry has a long pedigree going back to Baudelaire and Rimbaud doesn’t impress them much. The attraction of the form for those who fall under its spell is precisely its status as a pariah and object of ridicule. This is what Tate himself has to say on the subject:

The prose poem has its own means of seduction. For one thing, the deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph. People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin’. Come on in.

Like most statements about poetry made by poets, a lot of what Tate says here is only partly true. To begin with, the poems in the new book are not printed as paragraphs but look more like poems with the usual line breaks. The prosody is still that of a prose poem in that it is made up of sentences rather than of lines. These are quick little anecdotes, allegories, and fables. In fact, they are parodies of different kinds of narratives. What they undermine is our expectations that the story will come to a point. Tate does this by mixing up the real and the imaginary, the important and the trivial. Just about anything can happen next in this kind of poetry and that is its attraction. “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny,” he says in a poem. Some poets want the reader to be put at ease; Tate is not worried about leaving us a little dazed.

THE SPLENDID RAINBOW

The lightning woke us at about three AM. It sounded like a war was going on out there, the drumrolls, the cannons exploding, the bomb blasts, the blinding flashes. The electricity was out. I found the flashlight and lit some candles. The roof was leaking and the rain was lashing the windows so savagely they rattled in their casings. “What are our chances of dying?” Denny asked. “Almost certain,” I said. We sat on the edge of the bed and held onto one another. The lightning bolts were striking all around us. “Denny,” I said, “you are very, very beautiful and I love you with all my heart.” “I’ll take that to my watery grave,” she said, “and smile through eternity.” Then we kissed and the sun came up and the rain stopped and the birds started to sing, a bit too loudly. But, what the hell, they were in love, too.

Poets like Collins collect themselves into a single persona; Tate disperses himself among his invented characters. The poem, he has said, begins with a voice in his head, some colloquial phrase that gets it going. Since his ear for nuances of speech is so acute, the temptation to inhabit other selves is just too strong for him. If it turns out to be some bumbling oaf who will lead the reader by the end of the poem into the deepest metaphysical waters, so much the better. Tate is like a cartoonist who’ll turn himself into anything and anyone from a lover hiding under the bed to a flowerpot on the windowsill. He reminds me of Saul Steinberg. Uncle Sam playing the violin on a street corner while Lady Liberty beats a toy drum for a couple of dancing ants would fit comfortably in a Tate poem.

As one would expect from a book this long, Tate is not able to hit the jackpot in every poem. “It wouldn’t really be pushing against the limits if I knew how it was going to turn out,” he says in an interview. True. The uninterrupted derailing of expectations sometimes derails the poem too. That’s the risk he takes. There are too many voices, perhaps, too many stories, too many surprising turns of events to take it all easily in. Still, if America ever gets a comic epic it will sound like this. Tate has always had a good ear for clichés. He knows that they make the world in which we live. His new book does not have a hero, but a large cast of what one may call village idiots. They say and do all kinds of foolish things as they go about their American lives and then, when we least expect it, they surprise us with poetry.

THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM

I was walking down this dirt road out in the country. It was a sunny day in early fall. I looked up and saw this donkey pulling a cart coming toward me. There was no driver nor anyone leading the donkey so far as I could see. The donkey was just moping along. When we met the donkey stopped and I scratched its snout in greeting and it seemed grateful. It seemed like a very lonely donkey, but what donkey wouldn’t feel alone on the road like that? And then it occurred to me to see what, if anything, was in the cart. There was only a black box, or a coffin, about two feet long and a foot wide. I started to lift the lid, but then I didn’t, I couldn’t. I realized that this donkey was on some woeful mission, who knows where, to the ends of the earth, so I gave him an apple, scratched his nose a last time and waved him on, little man that I was.

“One of the great marvels and mysteries of good poetry,” Tate has written, “is that it can be about literally anything…a fleeting daydream, some overheard gossip, idle thoughts that become their own haunted labyrinth full of monsters, some lovable, others not.” This is also true of Collins in his best work. Without quite realizing it we find ourselves in our imagination and in our thoughts somewhere we had not expected to be, without a clear idea of how we got there. What Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist, said after hearing Ornette Coleman play his saxophone applies here too: He does everything wrong, but it sounds right. What I like about Tate is that he succeeds in ways for which there are a few precedents. He makes me think that anti-poetry is the best friend poetry ever had.

This Issue

February 28, 2002