I Know Where I’m Going

Billy Collins
Billy Collins; drawing by David Levine


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…

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