First of all, I do not hate Billy Collins.
His “Live at the Peter Norton Symphony Space” had me laughing out loud two summers ago, listening to it on repeat while working as a landscaper on a posh residential golf course in Tahoe. I was almost always alone, as one often is in the echoing second-home yards and hallways of the wealthy, and as I watered the geraniums and separated chunks of Irish moss from the endless stack of flats, Collins’ dry, slightly bored voice intoned stories about Mother’s Day lanyards, a dog’s true thoughts, and the precise wardrobe worn by the morning.
The work was mindless, a total body experience, and with my hands occupied my inner ear was primed for deep listening. I decided to listen to as many poets as possible. I checked out Poetry Speaks from the local library and heard Edna St Vincent Millay’s incomparable, slightly British delivery of her shorter verse– “We Were Very Tired,” “I Shall Forget You Presently.” I got shivers up my spine when Carl Sandburg moaned about the endless toiling of the grass. And Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” made me stop dead. I think I stood there over-watering a young pine tree well past the last word.
But Collins’ album was the one I played over and over, listening for his asides and stories, the audience laughing and yelling as they would between songs at a rock concert, because, well, Billy Collins is sort of a rock star.
I think this is why a lot of poets hate him, and why my university professors belittled him, if not directly then indirectly, through the utter omission of his work from every syllabus. One of my professors, who shall go nameless, actually said he was “not a real poet,” and unfortunately I took this as fact without ever having read Collins. But when Mary Oliver got lumped into this category of Not Real Poets, I started to suspect this professor of sour grapes. Actually, first I turned my back on Oliver, the first poet who got me to pay attention to the how of writing poetry, then I tried to write like a Real Poet, then I got discouraged and burnt out on workshops, then I graduated and started writing and submitting and then I decided this professor was a lousy teacher and vowed always to think for myself.
I took Oliver back out of storage and I read Billy Collins.
I read every Collins collection owned by the library, I visited his Poetry 180 website and I read his essays. I pored over the 2006 Best American Poetry, which he selected and edited, full of great poems from a wide variety of poets and publications and accompanied by a fantastic preface by series editor David Lehman.
The poems he selected for this volume, and for his Poetry 180 series, which aims to bring poetry into the lives of high school students during the 180 days of the academic year, follow no pattern and conform to no style, but are each in some way hospitable to the reader. This is Collins’ alternative to the word accessible, a word he says suggests “ramps for the poetically handicapped.” A poem is hospitable when it invites the reader in, when it lets them in on the inside joke. Similarly, he writes somewhere about poetic bad manners– the habit of certain poets to just launch right into a therapy session without any warning to the reader.
This kind of humor has saved me from throwing myself over the restraining rail of form and rhythm in poetry writing. Which is not to say that I don’t write god-awful therapy-session poems. I just don’t make people read them.
It was around this time that I started working at a small bookstore, and discovered a possible clue to the mystery that is this unattainable castle for Real Poets. Let it be known that there were only four poets whose books we could not keep on the shelves: Collins, Neruda, Oliver, and Rumi. Sure, we sold a little Hafiz and some Kunitz here and there, maybe some Snyder, and on a good day, Dickinson. But always those first four.
Lehman’s aforementioned preface addresses this aspect: that poets often cease to be taken seriously when they begin to sell books. It’s fine for Rumi and Neruda– they’re ghosts. They can sail peacefully over the rivers and hang on the apple leaves, and people will continue to read them and nobody will sneer at them about not being Real Poets. But even if they did, Rumi would have something sweet to say about chickpeas in the fire, and Neruda would crack a joke about being dead, and nobody would feel satisfied with their snide comments.
It’s not so nice for Oliver and Collins and the people who read them– people who don’t necessarily read other poets, but might some day. They have to deal with all this confusing and bitter hogwash about seriousness.
Well, I want to explore this a little more deeply. I don’t think it has just to do with bitterness, with commercial and popular success, with the protecting of castles and the loading of canons, pun intended.
I mean, there is something to be said for really working for a poem. For being utterly bewildered by it, for taking it up again and again as you age and seeing what more you get from it, and what less. I do this with T.S. Eliot. I read Prufrock every year and I still have no idea what’s going on, but I don’t much care. I am too engaged in the rhythm of the women coming and going, too distracted by the yellow fog and the cat-like smoke, too busy stirring things with teaspoons. Is Prufrock hospitable? I don’t know. But I make myself at home anyway.
Then there’s Dante’s Inferno, which I still haven’t read, but for which you apparently need a full set of encyclopedias in order to decipher. One day when I am old and arthritic or if I ever go to grad school, I’m going to do that work, but for now, I eat my toast and jam and drink my tea and prop a shorter book of poems against the half-and-half.
This morning it was Collins’ Questions About Angels. It could have been Hicok’s This Clumsy Living, or anything from Robert Hass. It could be Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Carolyn Kizer, or Joanne Kyger. Hospitality isn’t a trait owned and copyrighted by Collins. And it isn’t the only thing that makes a poem worth reading.
Moreover, hospitality doesn’t mean simplicity. It doesn’t mean you get into the pool and walk across to the other end and never have to swim. A poem can be inviting as a river, and still have rapids and scrape up your elbows a bit. It can turn you around and drop you off in some unfamiliar place. It can surprise you by being exactly the opposite temperature you expected.
Once I gave a poem of mine to my mother to read. When she finished, I asked her what she thought. She said she liked it. And…? I pressed. She got uncomfortable– maybe it was unfair to put her on the spot– but then she said she just didn’t understand poetry. All poetry? My poem made you decide you just don’t understand poetry? That’s the last thing I want my poems to do.
What excellent motivation to work harder.
I think one of the layers beneath the Hating Billy Collins Complex is the fear of being understood, and the lack of courage to try. It’s easy and comfortable to be misunderstood, unless you care about the other half of the poem’s magic, which is the reader engaging with it.
Perhaps this is an aspect more to do with the early part of a poet’s development. Perhaps a variation on the theme occurs throughout that development, so that older poets wind themselves in knots to say a simple thing in an erudite way and thus render it new. There are ways, there must always be ways, to wrestle with lineage and your acquired skills and say the old thing again without confusing or boring your reader. And why knock someone who has a little fun along the way, and pulls a few more people on board the party boat?
There’s more to think about here, of course, and room for conversation.