Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Future

Here's another New Yorker poem, "The Future," by Billy Collins. It reminds me of one of my favorite Collins poems, "Nostalgia."

I still don't quite get why people get so riled up about Collins's poems. Like many poets who have developed a singular style, he writes some excellent poems beside many that are "merely" good examples of his style, and even a few weak poems. And like many poets who have had some success in the poetry world, he probably gets a lot of his weaker poems published, the kind that a less well-known poet would not get away with.

But that's just normal in any art form, isn't it?


swiss said...

people get worked up about collins? they must have too much time on their hands!
i like him, he's one of the few poets who consistently leaves a smile on my face. i think my favourite's probably marginalia

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for those Andrew. I love Billy Collins. He converses in images, a very human voice, just laconic and knowing enough to avoid sentimentality, though he dances with it (why not?). I always include his 'Sonnet' in my poetry workshops.

Weaknesses? If you read his books straight through it can get a bit samey. And he can be a little too cute (in the Irish sense), a wee bit too plump-Buddhaish for his own, or anybody's good. But these are minor gripes when set against his best poems, which are very moving, delightfully rueful and often very FUNNY (remember the one about cigarettes, or the hat poem, perhaps my favourite). I think it's this latter virtue that really gets the goats (of those who possess yankable goatees). What right has he to be funny? He's supposed to be a poet for Chrissake, not a stand up comic! Tragicomedy. Kavanagh thought tragedy was "underdeveloped comedy, not yet fully born." He may well be right.

Funnily enough though, the weakest poem I read by Collins was a damp-squib attempt at a Heaney parody (and possibly other Irish poets). Not that Heaney shouldn't be parodied (of course he should), but you have to understand a poem before you can parody it well; maybe you even have to love it a bit. Wendy Cope is very good at it.

Mark Granier said...

Just thought of another, perhaps more significant thing that might annoy people about Collins. He can seem to be aiming just this side of folksy; his voice/persona can appear to be modulated into what the poet imagines to be the voice of Everyman, the Common Person (though how many have leave to spend their days floating around their gardens?). This might well irritate people who object to being spoken for and/or feel that poetry ought to be more complex, more crossword-puzzle-cryptic (i.e. NOT for everyone). I feel that this is a misapprehension; his voice is firstly human, and there is a raw edge to it, a suggestion that it knows something about suffering (without making a song and dance about it); that the humour is hard-won, or at least earned.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the comments, especially your double dose, Mark.

Swiss, for one take on Collins, see this:

Then there's David Orr's verse review from the New York Times:

Donald Brown said...

I wouldn't say I get "riled up," or only do when people begin praising unduly someone who is, to me, a pretty mediocre poet. And I think swiss hits on something: Collins poems could mostly end with a little smiley face emoticon. I can't really take many such.

I don't think it's the "folksiness" of his "everyman" persona that bothers me, so much as it is the blandness of his images, the unremarkable quality of his imagination -- as in this poem you cited: "And this was called history."

And then I showed them printed words on a page, arranged in groups with spaces between them, and the words were childlike and simple and yet somehow oddly pretentious, so that when people read them they felt a suggestion of depth without having to plunge. "and this was called poetry" I told them...

Andrew Shields said...

Don, your "childlike and simple and yet somehow oddly pretentious" reminds me of how I feel about most of the poetry I wrote in college -- not that it was "childlike and simple," but that the key to its attempt to ingratiate itself with the reader was how it was "oddly pretentious." Mythical imagery moved around like chess pieces (but without any system of rules like the rules of chess), with implications of portent, but nothing really there. Two in the morning, wow-dude poetry. :-)