POEMS OF SCARY DEPTH: BILLY COLLINS SEEKS TO ADVANCE PAST LORD BYRON

Byron: hated by husbands and modern poets. Can Billy Collins match up with him?

The chief objection to the poet from the typical sports watching lay person is that the poet ‘makes shit up.’

Yup, the poet does ‘make shit up’ and this is why philosophers like Plato object to them and why citizens immersed in reality have no time for them.

The world is full of shit, and shit is what most people are busily involved in—it’s the making the poets supposedly do which arouses suspicion and distaste for poets, because first of all, only God and people who work with their hands can ‘make’ something, and secondly, anyone who ‘makes’ something with words has got to be suspicious right from the start.

Common sense keeps words docile and doesn’t let words do anything tricky; poetry, on the other hand, lets words do anything they want; why should someone who maybe doubts their ability to keep all words under control, never mind all word-combinations under control, trust poetry?

It’s not surprising that poetry doesn’t have a lot of fans.

One might object by asking: what of the fabulist, the fictioneer, the novelist, the TV or movie script-writer? They get more love than the poet. Why?  Don’t they make up stuff with words, too?

Unlike the poet, the strict story-teller uses reality’s language, even if fantasy or sci-fi is the genre: words behaving themselves can talk about anything, but poet’s words do not behave. Misbehaving words afflict the mind itself, transforming the reader into something they may not recognize about themselves. This is scary.

The reader needs to feel safe: they prefer moral instruction which keeps their own mind intact as a reality construct, receiving reality’s information. Keeping a ‘made-up story’ at arm’s length is safe. Having your mind invaded by tricky words is something totally different.

The predictability of genre, reviewing, reader feedback and the ‘best seller’ phenomenon is crucial: this is why readers choose books by genre, by reviews, by recommendation, and by what’s on the ‘best-seller’ list.  The moral arc of predictable story-telling comforts the reader. The brains of most readers cannot receive beauty in language; words simply tell them what they can understand, and this is all that reading is for them.

Poets don’t cooperate with this system, because words which don’t obey a certain moral-reality-paradigm literally alter one’s brain and one’s morals.  Not all poets can do this, of course, nor could most readers have their brains altered by what they read even if they tried; but this is the perception in terms of readers generally choosing what they like or do not like.

Two poets who have more fans than most are contemporary poet Billy Collins, and 19th century poet Lord Byron, who had celebrity status from his poetry.

Collins takes great pains to not sound like a traditional poet.

Selling books is like herding bovines. Large house editors and publishers, if they really wanted to, could make Byron’s Don Juan a best-seller again: it would just require a large enough advertising budget and a movie tie-in.

It is not in the interest of publishers to do so, however, since if the industry can sell millions of books written in the plain style of King or Steele or Grisham, why raise the bar, Byron being so much a better writer?  Why build a cathedral when a wooden church will do?

Byron (beautiful, smart, funny) is dutifully kept in his place by the publishing industry; first of all, to make sure no authors feel they have to write well (like Byron) to sell, and secondly, Byron today occupies a down-trodden, sub-sub-position even within wretched poetry which, since Byron’s death, has morphed into a ‘modern’ product of plain speech and easy-to-grasp morals—as part of fiction’s publishing strategy of ‘most efficient bovine herding.’

Byron doesn’t sell today on account of being one of those tricky poets who ‘make shit up,’ barred from the lay reader’s comprehension.

Not only that, however: Byron is not even respected among poets today as a poet, rejected by them precisely because he is comprehended.

During poetry’s transformation from pretty to plain during WW I—when poets who wrote prettily (Brooke, Thomas, Owen) were literally being slaughtered in the trenches—as poems became plain-spoken to fit in with mass living, a last-minute alteration occured: seeing poetry had nothing now to distinguish it from plain speech, in a calmly calculated effort to keep poetry as the ‘elite’ art form everyone understood poetry to be, poetry labeled itself “difficult,” so that in its new plain state at least it would not completely disappear.

The anglo-american poetry industry made a Faustian bargain: poetry will continue to exist as a “difficult” genre the lay person cannot trust—and this will be poetry’s sole (but vital) distinguishing characteristic. It would attract a small following of the mad, but at least it would still exist as what the mad groupies were sure was “poetry.”

Not everyone in Modernville was happy this happened, but it did. Exceptions, of course, exist. Poets, determined to be understood, have written easily understood poems: on wheel barrows. But once an industry criterion is established, it doesn’t easily go away: a wheel barrow in a poem has deep meaning whether it really does—or not.  This is the iron law.  It has long since been established as poetry’s trade-pamphlet reality: all poems are/ought to be “difficult,” even little ones about wheel barrows. 

Poetry—whether by Byron, or not—is not popular today because not being popular became poetry’s identifying marker when poetry self-consciously became ‘modern’ and jettisoned all its previous charms.

Again, exceptions exist; elements of the public yearn to reverse the Modernist Faustian Bargain, and popular poems do peep through the cement occasionally. But obscenity-trial “Howl” was an ugly flower; the public still mistrusts poetry; “difficulty” lingers on as poetry’s identifying elitist marker.

Byron (past) and Collins (present) are good examples of populist, anti-modernist poetry; they are welcome participants in Scarriet’s 2013 Madness Tournament.

Collins writes plainly; it is the equivalent of one approaching a doe in the woods: “It’s okay! Don’t be afraid! I won’t hurt you!”

“At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats,” is the first line of Collins’ Madness Tournament entry, “Passengers.” 

There is no meter, no rhyme; just one line after another, as if it were prose—but easier.

Gently the doe is offered food: “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.”

PASSENGERS–Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Collins does not ‘make shit up,’ he merely records his quirky ruminations—the charming thing about “Passengers” is that it exists as an actual document of someone thinking about something which he cannot share.

The very people Collins could share it with are not allowed to access his thoughts—and the reason it cannot be shared is the very reason for the poem itself.

The “police” are absent censors until the poem is liberated in front of us—who become the “passengers” of Collins’ poem.

Byron is represented with a random excerpt from his long poem, Don Juan:

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Byron is self-consciously rejecting old poetry with his jokey, “Hail, Muse! et cetera.”  Byron is more modern than many moderns would like to admit. Maybe it’s time to come out and admit that “Modern” is merely a brand. 

Byron, like Collins, also conveys the forbidden: love/sex/marriage advice: highly embarrassing to the public at large, which would prefer Byron to be a character in a novel, not a free-thinking poet speaking out in a poem as a thinly-veiled version of himself.

The chief fault with the Byron is the tone of lecturing, combined with the feeling that too much sweat is spilled for the sake of wit and rhyme that attempts to mitigate that same tone.  Otherwise, it’s just brilliant.

Collins, despite his prose, does use poetic language; note the assonance of: “some spaceless, pillarless Greece.”

One might say Collins and Byron are apples and oranges, but a winner there must be.

Collins 90, Byron 88.

Lord Byron goes down!

9 Comments

  1. April 22, 2013 at 12:38 am

    The true and only difference between Lord Byron and Billy Collins is that Billy Collins in comparison to a poet like Lord Byron born in another age and era of language, is boring.

    Doesn’t matter what the score states.

    • retorrey said,

      April 22, 2013 at 11:36 am

      I don’t think he’s boring at all…

      Call it plain language,
      call it “poetry lite”,
      call it “accessible” — whatever –
      the guy can write.

      • April 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm

        He can write, yes.

        But again the article is comparing a poet from another time and era of language and writing. When you read the writing of Byron, let alone Shakespeare it’s a helluva lot more interesting.

  2. Suzannah said,

    April 24, 2013 at 4:10 am

    Billy Collins DOES “make shit up,” (which is how people really say it, though it’s grammatically incorrect), and he has reached more people, proportionately, in his time, than Byron did. Billy explicitly admits that he is trying to reach “one reader,” which makes me smile and smile. He knows how to talk to people.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      Suzannah,

      Interesting question—or maybe not: who was actually more famous: Byron or Collins? Byron was a household word in Europe and America, and the word “Byronic” (not to be confused with ironic) was often used at one point.

      Humans, one could argue, do not ‘make’ things; they can only re-combine. Collins does know how to talk to people. He seems the opposite of someone who compulsively ‘makes things up.’ He seems to use reality, obvious things from history, his own life experiences, and this is what puts people at ease with him. His ‘creativity’ works very much with reality. That’s why I think he’s popular. People perceived as creative and yet grounded in reality gain the most trust of all.

      Tom

  3. drew said,

    January 3, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    I am surprised that Scarriet is so easy on B. Collins.
    (Let it be said that I find Scarriet’s appraisal interesting and engaging, rather than enraging !)
    I received a book of Collin’s poetry this Christmas and found, even after a beer or two, that I could not enjoy it at all. Perhaps my appreciation will develop later with more exposure to his work – but I doubt it.
    I agree with this critique that I just discovered at Drunken Boat:

    http://www.drunkenboat.com/db4/stephens/apology.html

    Have you ever read Cosmoetica? It’s mean but I love it.

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/TOP38-DES35.htm

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 3, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Drew,
      Thanks for those links.

      I’ve been aware of Cosmoetica for years and like its hyper-critical close readings. It’s no Bullshit, independent spirit is refreshing. The poem chosen: “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice, is Collins at his worst: silly, treacly, and pretentious (I dig Art Blakey). “Passengers,” however, is a masterpiece.

      All commentators on Collins seem to either love him or revile him without separating his bad from his good poems, which is a terrible shame and points out the terrible state of Criticism in this country. It points out the clique mentality of poets held hostage by experimental Modernism: ‘if I actually understand a poem and like it, it must be bad!’

      The Drunken Boat blog explicitly reveals itself as a victim of the Modernist virus:

      “Those in the know in poetry terms know that Collins is a bad poet”

      “Frank O’Hara is an example of a poet whose work can be extremely accessible and teachable, and yet can hardly be confused with capital-p poetry.”

      “While capital-p Poetry probably could use a dressing down, Collins is hardly the person to do it.”

      “Collins is a product of the workshop poetry culture and oddly enough his funniest poems are those that critique his own profession (for instance the poem ‘Workshop’). * “No one seems to know quite what to do with the immense profusion of poetry writing. Critiques of writing programs abound and need to be taken seriously—but perhaps as a first step we need to start with more honestly critiquing poets and poetry itself. Billy Collins’ solution to his obvious dislike of his own profession is to trivialize it.”

      “Many of the most interesting poets have contined to engage with the challenging, difficult (and often political) writing of the great Modernist writers. The workshop poets have by and large ignored Modernist writing and satisfied themselves with romanticized nineteenth century models of poetry as emotional experience within the domestic arena.”

      This Drunken Boat piece is over 10 years old (2002) and (I’m so glad you brought this to Scarriet’s attention, Drew) reveals in a nutshell what Scarriet has been saying in the 4 years of its existence: Modernism is a resentful, tyrannical, blind movement which hates the past (“nineteenth century models”) and, despite the fact that Modernist worship abounds, besotted Modernists like The Drunken Boat actually think the solution to Modernist dominated workshop poetry excess is MORE engagement with “Modernist Writers” !!?!

      We’d like to see honest Criticsm of Modernist Writers from Drunken Boat. Bet there isn’t any.

      The resentment of Billy Collins by Drunken Boat is very telling. Note that Frank O’Hara (the respectable modernist poet) merely writes what is NOT capital-p Poetry. But Collins is at fault in the eyes of Drunken Boat because he dares to “trivialize” capital-p Poetry. The Modernist credo is absolute separation from all past (capital-p) poetry. Despite all of Collins’ free verse modernist creds, he is STILL HATED, because 1) he dares to ENGAGE with old tropes in a way that makes him popular and beloved and 2) he is “domestic” (not rabidly “political”). You are not allowed to be “domestic” in a complacent manner, for the Modernist revels in protest for its own sake, especially protest against what appears to be normative and happy.

      • drew said,

        January 3, 2014 at 9:08 pm

        Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write an informed response to my comment on a cold thread from months ago. I will need to read more Collins and ponder all you have said here.
        I share your distaste for the (post)modernist bent of Drunken Boat. (But I love its namesake in the original French – what a rocking true poem by Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre”).

        I was given 3 poetry books for Christmas:

        Billy Collins, Derek Wolcott and a 1930s anthology of poetry: “Best Loved Poems of the American people” edited by Hazel Felleman.

        But the BEST thing I did during Christmas vacation was attempt to read Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” – partly due to Scarriet’s esteem for Pope. I love what he says about Calvin in there.
        Happy New Year!

        • thomasbrady said,

          January 4, 2014 at 12:11 am

          Happy New Year, Drew! Always a pleasure to read your responses.

          Tom


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