Saturday, February 5, 2011

Billy Collins Rebuttal

Here's the thing: What I like, and what others like I think, about Billy Collins is exactly that he is a writer that creates poems that speak to our everyday lives. Sure, it's not epic in the same sense that, say, Whitman is epic. But after plowing through pretty verses and lines about 'Ah Sea' the smallness and preciseness of Collins is something I look forward to. Here's a section of Leaves of Grass i was reading this morning:
Billy Collins
Walt Whitman
'You Sea! I resign myself to you also..I guess what you
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers, 
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together..I undress...hurry me
     out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft..rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet...I can repay you.
Compared to my all time favorite poem by Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. 

I think what Collins does, putting drama in the quotidienne and heartbreak in the mundane is exceptional. And better still, it opens up poetry to someone who isn't going to sit down and read "Press close barebossomed night'! (line 435, Leaves of Grass, 1955). Whitman, when he self-published Leaves of Grass, wrote in his introduction that "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." By Whitman's own standards, Billy Collins is an American Poet of the highest order.


  1. haha "press close barebosomed night!" love it. I agree about billy collins...i think he is the first poet who got me liking poetry...i had always liked shakespeare and all but it never really hit home as much for me as billy collins did. he was like the gateway drug for me into appreciating all kinds of i love poetry...but always my favorite it the plainspken kind that billy collins does consistently the best.

    i agree with what acton said that sometimes he can be annoyingly mundane...but that's just what he's interested most people.

    another thing about him is he makes you feel like you are THIS close to writing poetry yourself since his poems are so deceptively simple...

    keep up the good work it's a livre life!!

  2. From AD:


    Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
    skirmishes against the author
    raging along the borders of every page
    in tiny black script.
    If I could just get my hands on you,
    Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
    they seem to say,
    I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

    Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
    "Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
    that kind of thing.
    I remember once looking up from my reading,
    my thumb as a bookmark,
    trying to imagine what the person must look like
    why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
    alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

    Students are more modest
    needing to leave only their splayed footprints
    along the shore of the page.
    One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
    Another notes the presence of "Irony"
    fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

    Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
    Hands cupped around their mouths.
    "Absolutely," they shout
    to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
    "Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
    Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
    rain down along the sidelines.

    And if you have managed to graduate from college
    without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
    in a margin, perhaps now
    is the time to take one step forward.

    We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
    and reached for a pen if only to show
    we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
    we pressed a thought into the wayside,
    planted an impression along the verge.

    Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
    jotted along the borders of the Gospels
    brief asides about the pains of copying,
    a bird signing near their window,
    or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
    anonymous men catching a ride into the future
    on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

    And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
    they say, until you have read him
    enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

    Yet the one I think of most often,
    the one that dangles from me like a locket,
    was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
    I borrowed from the local library
    one slow, hot summer.
    I was just beginning high school then,
    reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
    and I cannot tell you
    how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
    how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
    when I found on one page

    A few greasy looking smears
    and next to them, written in soft pencil-
    by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
    whom I would never meet-
    "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."