Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Billy Collins: "Bard" of the Bourgeoisie

I have always been frustrated with Billy Collins, though I give him credit for being one of the only living poets who is also a household name. Still, a typical poem of his is, to me, no more beautiful than a typical Mark Bittman recipe. To me, Collins belongs to the same class of writers as Bittman. Many of them write for The New York Times, and increasingly, like Collins, for Slate. They are educated and, therefore, often insightful, but they are also unapoligeticly comfortable, and, worse, they seem to write only for people like them. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a totally acceptable quality in a writer of recipes and any other kind of nonfiction, but for some reason, it doesn't seem to quite cut it for poetry. Maybe I'm being overly romantic, but though Billy Collins is consistently clever, his poems, with their constant references to newspapers, breakfast tables, and pets, are so rarely more than that.

Take this poem Billy Collins published in Slate this morning called "Roses"

In those weeks of midsummer
when the roses in gardens begin to give up,
the big red, white, and pink ones—
the inner, enfolded petals growing cankerous,
the ones at the edges turning brown
or fallen already, down on their girlish backs
in the rough beds of turned-over soil,

then how terrible the expressions on their faces,
a kind of
was it all really worth it? look,
to die here slowly in front of everyone
in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast
into die here slowly in front of everyone
in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast
in a provincial English market town,
to expire by degrees of corruption
in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by,a provincial English market town,
to expire by degrees of corruption
in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by,

the thin mail carrier, the stocky butcher
(thank God the children pay no attention),
the swiveling faces in the windows of the buses,
and now this stranger staring over the wall,
his hair disheveled, a scarf loose around his neck,
writing in a notebook, writing about us no doubt,
about how terrible we look under the punishing sun.'

I think this poem represents one of his regular attempts at self-awareness. But self-awareness can actually be an enemy of poetry. My guess is old Billy relates to the roses "in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast/ in a provincial English market town,/ to expire by degrees of corruption/ in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by." Like them, his job is to give pleasure through beauty. Like them, he is seen as sell-out-y because he is so expected, and successful. Like them, he is a figure of high visibility, and he has a lifespan, which has has invited the world to look on as he withers. And Billy is feeling self-conscious from his perch in the garden of a bed and breakfast in front of the young artistic-looking man.

The subtext, though, is that Billy Collins is somehow not the old rich guy the young guy might think he is. He is a "poet" who feels things deeply. But I don't see any evidence of that. I think his wit would be better suited to magazine editorship and the poetry left to the man who feels more than self-consciuosness and guilt at his own success.

Then again, maybe this is how people felt about Robert Frost, who was also majorly commercially successful, in his lifetime. I think Robert Frost differed in that he took himself deadly seriously. Billy Collins seems so light. Poets need a little pain without perspective.

This is Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Arthur Rimbaud in a movie I once saw by accident. This image comes with a warning: tempting as this screen cap is, do not, under any circumstances, see this movie. It is a stomach-turning, mess. There is a reason you have never heard of it. The point is, Rimbaud had a lot more to worry about than Billy Collins, and that is why he is both better looking and a better poet.

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