Billy Collins: So this poet walks into a poem…

To read Best American Poetry 2006, when Billy Collins was the judge, is to be struck by the ‘stand-up comedy’ style of its poetry.

Reading over the clever, flamboyant, frank poems in BAP 2006 with more care than they perhaps deserve, we notice the “voice” in these poems tends to be humorous and idiosyncratic—but not quite ‘comedy club’ humorous.  And yet, this seems to be, by default, the target audience.   There’s some success and some charm which follows from this style, but it’s also problematic, since it ultimately doesn’t work as poetry,  and yet it doesn’t work as comedy either; it flounders in a never-never land, between the two genres.

I like to laugh as much as the next person, and when I’m laughing, I don’t care whether what I’m reading is supposed to be poetry, or not.   But what if the material isn’t really funny?  What if that’s the intent, but, in reality, it’s finally just weird? There’s a desire to repeat a good joke, but the merely odd tends to be forgotten.  This is what happens to all contemporary poetry, it seems.

The following is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”  When Collins tries to say how the “voice” feels like something he can “trust,” he gets into  trouble.   When you ask a poem—which is a fiction—to be “honest,” as Collins does, you move  into tricky territory.

Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose the familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurring of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat.  Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern.  It’s the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs.   What has come to replace this system of trust, if anything?  However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice.  As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines.  Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims itself–usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly–or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger?

–Billy Collins, Introduction to BAP 2006, David Lehman series editor

How does Collins expect the reader to figure out that the poem he happens to be reading is not by a “stranger?” The Collins criteria have no merit: “fallibly but honestly?”   Should we trust a poem that begins: Goo goo ga ga goo goo. Fallible?  Yes. Honest? Yes.

But Collins says:  Nothing “grandiose.”  No “riddles.”  Nothing “foisted.”

Let’s be honest, here.  Collins isn’t really talking about a ” voice” that he can “trust.”   That’s just the professor in him talking.   What he’s really looking for are comic bits.    Here, chosen at random, are the opening lines of some poems in BAP 2006:

“Into every life a little ax must fall.”   —Kim Addonizio

“I just found out that my new husband/May have never married me at all.”  —Laura Cronk

“When a sentence is composed of two independent /clauses, the second being weaker than the first/it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it/purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called Ring/Dropped In Muddy Creek, or if elegantly composed, Wasp Fucking Orchid.”Tom Christopher

“At the Miro exhibit in the Centre Pompidou,/I hear a guy say to his girlfriend…”   —David Kirby

“I’ve been smoking so much pot lately”  —Jennifer Knox

“Nose out of joint, City Slicker?/Blown a gasket, Hot Shot?/Fit to be tied, Arty Farty?/Going through the roof, Curtain Raiser?”  —Mark Pawlak

“I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you, he said,/which meant what exactly?”   —Liz Rosenberg

“Because we know our lives will end/Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.”   —Charles Harper Webb

It’s just a hunch, but we think Collins is a better poet for not being able to articulate a thing about poetry.

“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”


  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 4, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Mike Young’s HTMLGIANT blog has a great list of 41 moves of contemporary poetry.

    It’s an interesting commentary in light of ‘Poetry: Comedy For People Who Aren’t Funny’ because most of these contemporary moves are the equivalent of bad punning. They’re damn awful. The poem as weak joke.

    Also, I have a feeling they’re not even contemporary. I think they can all be found in Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, and Byron.

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 4, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Yes, the majority of Mike Young’s examples are like stand up routines, Tom, I can see that, and your list of earlier proponents spot on, Byron in particular.

    And of course there are lots of earlier poets who regularly employed just such “moves,” most of them proponents of light verse, like Lewis Carroll, Hilaire Belloc and Edward Lear, and all sorts of satirists. especially in the theatre. The only really serious poet that I can think of who used “moves” like these more recently, and hugely effectively too, was Edna St Vincent Millay — because, of course, she understood that real life is itself a stand up routine, and lovers in particular compulsive players on the edge of the bed.

    The whole list reminds me of Stephen Burt’s ‘New Thing’ essay a bit — perhaps because in that essay too there was such a dysjunction between the moves he was illustrating and the poetry. I wondered why he wanted to identify a movement that was made up largely of non-poetry.

    That’s not Mike Young’s concern, obviously, and I don’t think he’ll mind if I say his list comes over as a sort of pop installation. But it’s well-presented and it’s funny — overheard in the rag and bone shopping-mall of the heart.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 4, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Readers of Scarriet know we love lists and Mike Young’s Move list is a feast, with lots of good examples.

    As far as the snippy attitude expressed on Mike’s site, we’re not going to stoop to that.

    “oh god. not you.
    once again you miss the point completely. please go away.” —Matt Covert

    “Can’t say I agree with you. I like poetry. I like contemporary poetry. Duh these “moves” are not new. Most moves aren’t. That’s why we chose the word moves. Have some good faith.” —Mike Young

    Anyway, I hope there’s no hard feelings, Mike. Again, thanks for the list.

  4. mike young said,

    February 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Hi y’all,

    I don’t agree with either of you about contemporary poetry, but hey, I don’t like gilded butterflies either. Regardless, I’m happy to hear you had fun reading the list. Whatever spirit you read it in, weird to me or not, I’m sincerely glad it didn’t add to what’s obviously a lot of negative feeling in the feeling space y’all reserve for poetry.

    Some minor comprehension housecleaning: HTMLGIANT is a public blog, not my personal site, and the list was a collaborative effort between me and Elisa Gabbert, who—incidentally—is a thoughtful, fun (which is different than funny, probably, though she’s funny too) and terrific contemporary poet.

    Millay ’12,

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2010 at 8:17 pm


    You’re building a straw man with that “gilded butterflies” remark. It’s clear to me you haven’t read Scarriet.

    I sense a panicky? freaky? suave? defense of contemporary poetry on your part and fear your defensive? erudite? zany? posture is causing you to assume we allow our love of old poetry to eclipse appreciation of the new. This is a hurried? yuk yuk? slightly bemused? misreading on your part. That’s why we discuss these things, so that two points of view might meet in the middle, over a cup of Billy Collins: Do you like the way he playfully uses the past? Do you find him funny? Do you think he has a pedagogical strategy? But you aren’t engaging on any sort of level like this; you are merely deflecting us with “gilded butterflies.”

    You have what I might term the ‘inverted pyramid’ view of poetry, with the narrow end representing narrow old poetry and the wide end representing the multi-faceted, nuanced, new poetry, and you’re thinking, ‘How can these people defend that narrow end?’ Believe me, I understand the nature of your complaint, and I also understand how the ‘inverted pyramid’ view makes you think? laugh? cry? the way you do. We’re staking out ground (with steaks! mistakes?) and that ground includes the past and (we hope) the future; we have nothing against contemporary poetry, per se. We love contemporary poetry, or post avant poetry, or whatever name you want to give it right now.

    Thanks for the HTMLGIANT clarification.

    Hi, Emily Gabbert! Sorry we slighted you! You probably heart us even less than Mike Young! But we heart you!

    To fun, funny or not,


  6. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 23, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Two Poems by John Simon

    Small Things

    The thorn in Rilke’s finger,
    The boil on Scriabin’s lip,
    Were enough to wrest the singer
    From his musicianship.

    Airiest Isadora
    Gave up her dancing breath
    When motoring she wore a
    Red scarf that caught on death.

    Small things speed our departure:
    A scarf, a boil, a thorn;
    But were they any larger,
    The things by which we are born?

    Of verts

    Consider the verts: the in and the per,
    The intro and extra, who con or who sub.
    For conversation somehow to occur
    Could they perhaps band into a club?

    Is there an aspect of vert they can share,
    Or must they endlessly animadvert?
    Would they not rather rise to the dare
    To talk to each other and act in concert?

    Vert comes from Latin, meaning to turn
    This way or that, advert or revert.
    And surely it’s better to move than to yearn,
    Impacted in stasis, inane and inert.

    It allows us to change from the common course,
    Ignore dull convention that doesn’t divert;
    If a different color can profit a horse,
    To humans why should it bring nothing but hurt?

    Will it be permanent or only a spurt?
    It can turn many heads, conquer a heart.
    The one thing it can’t do is to revert
    To an impossible better new start.

  7. Bob Tonucci said,

    May 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

    The Height of the Ridiculous

    by Oliver Wendell Holmes

    I wrote some lines once on a time
    In wondrous merry mood,
    And thought, as usual, men would say
    They were exceeding good.

    They were so queer, so very queer,
    I laughed as I would die;
    Albeit, in the general way,
    A sober man am I.

    I called my servant, and he came;
    How kind it was of him
    To mind a slender man like me,
    He of the mighty limb.

    “These to the printer,” I exclaimed,
    And, in my humorous way,
    I added, (as a trifling jest,)
    “There’ll be the devil to pay.”

    He took the paper, and I watched,
    And saw him peep within;
    At the first line he read, his face
    Was all upon the grin.

    He read the next; the grin grew broad,
    And shot from ear to ear;
    He read the third; a chuckling noise
    I now began to hear.

    The fourth; he broke into a roar;
    The fifth; his waistband split;
    The sixth; he burst five buttons off,
    And tumbled in a fit.

    Ten days and nights, with sleepless eye,
    I watched that wretched man,
    And since, I never dare to write
    As funny as I can.

  8. Marcus Bales said,

    May 8, 2010 at 11:20 am

    The Blind Men and The Elephant
    John Godfrey Saxe

    It was six men of Indostan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant,
    Though all of them were blind,
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy his mind.

    The First approached the Elephant,
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side,
    At once began to bawl:
    “God bless me! but the Elephant
    Is very like a wall!”

    The Second, feeling of the tusk,
    Cried, “Ho! what have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear!”

    The Third approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Thus boldy up and spake:
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a snake!”

    The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
    And felt about the knee.
    “What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!”

    The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!”

    The Sixth no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right,
    And all were in the wrong.

  9. thomasbrady said,

    May 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

    The elephant is both comedy and poetry?
    No, the elephant is but an elephant,
    And the poem that goes for a cheap laugh will not move the elephant
    And the cheap laugh which pretends it is a poem will not move the elephant,
    Why, who knows what will move the elephant?
    No, my thesis will not be overturned by an old saw!
    Before that happens, I’ll become an elephant.

  10. Marcus Bales said,

    May 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Found Poem – Dead Horse Strategies

    My father used to say
    “If you don’t want dead horses beaten
    don’t drag them into the parlor
    and hand me a whip.”

    Modern bureaucracies, however,
    employ a range of different strategies —
    for example:
    buying a bigger whip,
    changing riders,
    appointing a committee to study the horse,
    sending a delegation to other countries
    to study how others ride or whip dead horses,
    hiring outside contractors and consultants
    to whip the dead horse,
    harnessing several dead horses together
    to increase the speed,
    providing additional funding or training
    to increase the dead horse’s performance,
    commissioning a productivity study
    to see if lighter riders or more food might
    improve the dead horse’s performance,
    re-writing the expected performance requirements
    for all horses to demonstrate
    that since the dead horse
    does not have to be fed
    it is less costly, carries lower overhead,
    and therefore contributes
    substantially more to the bottom line
    than do some other horses,
    lowering the standards for living horses
    to include dead horses,
    re-classifying the dead horse as
    living impaired,
    threatening the horse with termination,
    and, when all else fails,
    promoting the dead horse
    to a supervisory position.

    Dakota Indians say
    when you discover you are riding
    a dead horse
    the wisest council is to

  11. Bob Tonucci said,

    May 15, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    I’m Married
    —a letter to the folks

    My wife has tattoos on her neck
    and queer unmatching breasts.
    She’s very young, and plays
    barbaric music on the radio.

    She’s in the john now,
    washing my socks in the bathtub
    and singing to herself.

    When I’m late at night
    she comes and sits down on my lap
    and scribbles on what I’m writing,

    I’m very happy.

    —Eric Torgersen

  12. Tattooch said,

    September 2, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    What is a youth?
    Impetuous fire
    What is a maid?
    Ice and desire
    The world wags on

    A rose will bloom
    It then will fade
    So does a youth
    So does the fairest maid

    Comes a time
    When one sweet smile
    Has its season for a while
    Then love’s in love with me

    Some they think only to marry
    Others will tease and tarry
    Mine is the very best parry
    Cupid he rules us all

    Caper the caper, sing me the song
    Death will come soon to hush us along
    Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall
    Love is a pastime that never will pall
    Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall
    Cupid he rules us all

    A rose will bloom
    It then will fade
    So does a youth
    So does the fairest maid

  13. Noochness said,

    December 10, 2010 at 9:53 am

    In the Bookstore

    I went down to the bookstore this evening
    and found myself in the poetry section.
    But for every thin book of poems
    there was a thick biography of the poet
    and an even thicker book
    by someone who’s supposed to know
    explaining what the poet
    is supposed to’ve said and why he didn’t.
    So you don’t have to waste your time
    on the best the writer could do,
    the words he fought the darkness and himself for,
    the unequal battle with beauty.
    Instead you can read comfortably
    about the worst the writer could do:
    the mess he made of his life,
    how he fought with his family,
    cheated on his lovers, didn’t pay his debts
    and not only drank too much
    but all the stupid things
    he ever said to the bartender
    just before getting 86’d will be printed for you
    and they’re just as stupid
    as the things everyone says just before getting 86’d.
    The books explaining the poet
    are themselves inexplicable.
    The students who have to read them
    I left the poetry section
    thinking about burning the bookstore down.
    Some of the poet’s work comes from his life, ok.
    But most of the poet’s work comes
    in spite of his life, in spite of everything,
    even in spite of the bookstores.
    So I went to the next section
    and bought a murder mystery but I haven’t read it yet.
    I find I don’t want to know who done it
    and why;
    I want to do it myself.

    Julia Vinograd

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 10, 2010 at 2:11 pm

      Julia, don’t burn that bookstore down! LOL

      Gosh. What’s wrong with knowing about the poet?

      A “poet’s work comes in spite of everything…”

      Uh…not really.

      And are there big fat biographies of Jorie Graham, detailing every aspect of her life? Uh…no.

      Julia Vinograd: Frankenstein’s Monster of the New Critics

    • Marcus Bales said,

      December 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm

      Reading Poet Bios

      Some are longer than the poem; some are sly
      or arch, but most are dry
      of lists of publications
      or hobbies or pets,
      Frequently a wife or husband gets
      a mention, or the occasional contest win,
      or a selection in
      a “Best Of” collection,
      a Mensa or Phi Beta Kappa connection,
      or maybe a prize
      or two, or nominations or other such tries,
      and sometimes fellowships or kids,
      but some common concordance forbids
      any sort of real
      revelation. Yet, there’s an awkward feel
      from almost every one
      that quite a bit more work was done
      on the bio than on the poem.
      By their bios shall you know ‘em.

  14. March 20, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    […] Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up […]

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