BILLY COLLINS WINS WHITE HOUSE READING

There’s no crying in poetry criticism.

So why is everyone afraid to actually judge the recent White House poetry reading?

The post-modern school of U.S. poetry is always pushing forward, like commuters on a platform when a train pulls in late, or frantic competitors buying tickets for a plane in the award-winning Amazing Race reality show.

Eager to find the newest way in which the mundane can be declared poetic, the avant-garde scrambles up the next peak of platitude to plant a flag marked ‘poetry.’

The whole modernist/post-modernist history of the avant-garde, from Rimbaud to Apollinaire to Kenneth Goldsmith, is wrapped up in a single concept: the ‘Found Poem Syndrome,’ in which the avant-garde artist, like King Midas, turns everything to poetry-gold with a mere touch.

There is a different tradition.

In this tradition, poetry seeks to connect in a far different manner.  Milton hints at this tradition cunningly, if bombastically, in Book I of his Paradise Lost:

my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This tradition is typically characterized by the Greek ideal of arete, or excellence, the Romantic sublime, or Shelley’s “scorner of the ground,” but it can be explained in a more humble light: it is simply the reverse of the Found Poem Syndrome.

Instead of trying to make everything poetic, the sublime tradition defers poetic appropriation, and takes the wary, Platonist approach, exploiting the tension between the poetic and the not poetic.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 is a good example of the poet eager to explore the poetic as desire in the Platonist tradition—rather than a ‘found poem,’ we get the tantalizingly lost:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom:
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life saying ‘not you’

We have, then, the ‘Rare’ tradition on one hand, and, on the other, the modernist Found Poem tradition—which asserts the poetic in as many ways as possible.

Both traditons showed up at the May 11 White House poetry reading, but only one poet gave us the arete or sublime, tradition: Billy Collins.

Jack Powers ran a poetry group in Boston called “Stone Soup Poetry,” consisting of misfits on welfare who met in a restaurant until they were banned—for anti-social behavior: being rude to the servers or hogging a table for hours to drink one cup of coffee—only to move on to the next restaurant.   The poetry was awful, but anyone calling themselves a poet had an audience and a scene, and since helping misfits, even while harming restaurants, carries with it a moral lift, Jack, of tall stature, bass voice and plain manner, was a bit of a local hero for decades.  Blowing into town, I noticed the misfits, and being a  young, unpublished poet myself, I swore to myself I would never bring myself to mingle with that crowd, which had the whiff of the mental hospital about it: I said to myself: “These people are not misfits because they are poets.  They are poets because they are misfits.”

Of course I was being a snob, and my fear of this crowd may have had much to do with the fact that I was something of a misfit myself.  I certainly did not believe that ‘smooth’ persons were better poets than eccentric ones, nor did I avoid eccentric persons as a matter of course—I did not, and still do not. The oddball can be a fascinating conversationalist and an interesting person, but there’s no guarantee that poetry is in the cards for such a person.  When I did inevitably succumb, and found myself drinking a beer at a Stone Soup reading, the poetry that was read was exactly what I expected: a little bit of it good, some it funny, most of it coarse, self-absorbed, and stupid.

The White House poetry reading felt very Stone Soup.  The poets, except for Billy Collins, were anxious to drape the world in poetry: Rita Dove’s homage to her childhood public library loved every unconnected detail it presented, so the result was smarmy, loose and rambling. Alison Knowles was an artsy-fartsy nightmare, taking off her shoes and dully talking about them. The young Moira Bass read a short poem that had a lot of “aints” in it.  The other HS student, Youssef Biaz, looking somewhat like a young president Obama, recited a Sharon Olds poem that encompassed genocide, vocabulary, pedagogy, sex and so many other subjects, it all blurred together—and it was recited in a smooth, and yet also odd, affected way. Kennth Goldsmith read a found poem. I found him not quite as embarrassing as Alison Knowles, but close. Jill Scott went for perky feminist uplift, the rapper Common, for earnest Martin Luther King, Jr. uplift.  They both had a certain amount of charisma, but in both cases, the poetry itself bordered on annoying.

The assumption is that general interest increases when poetry finds new ways to thump us over the head, and when poetry tackles all sorts of subjects and when poetry keeps ‘finding’ new poetic objects.  President Obama, in his brief introductory remarks, said poetry is “different” for everyone.

But why does poetry as a general interest keep declining?  Because general interest requires us to feel the same about something. General interest is not enhanced by shouting, or by the greatest possible number of small fires burning in idiosyncratic, private, differences.

Obama’s “difference” is a political ideal, not a poetic one.  All our personal differences should be respected.  But poetry doesn’t build general interest by breeding difference.  Obama’s first example, the War of 1812 poem which united people as America’s national anthem, betrays his notion that poetry is about everybody feeling differently.

Billy Collins was funny and entertaining.  He was the only poet I genuinely enjoyed, and you could tell by the laughter that he was the genuine hit of the evening.

Both poems Collins read were the opposite of the artsy-fartsy found poem.

Say what you will about it, “The Lanyard,” read pefectly by Collins, is  quintissentially anti-Kenneth Goldsmith, a direct hit against the found poem, against the avant-garde impulse that would ground everything in poetry.  A hand-crafted lanyard becomes Collins’ humorous sacrifice:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The other poem Collins read, after some jokes about how “jealous” other poets would be that he was at the White House—good jokes because you weren’t sure if he was kidding or not—was the marvelous “Forgetfulness.”

The first line of “Forgetfulness” is “The name of the author is the first to go.”

Collins’ poem is in the same spirit as Shakespeare’s Sonnet #145.

Billy Collins is an antidote to the artsy-fartsy Found Poem artist who is in a hurry to make all casual objects poetic.

The sublime poets, like Collins and Shakespeare, have a whole different strategy in mind.

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9 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    May 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    The college president at the graduation ceremony I happened to be at yesterday quoted a Billy Collins poem.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  3. May 25, 2011 at 1:09 am

    “The sublime poets, like Collins and Shakespeare,…”

    Interesting comparison. I wasn’t aware that you took drugs, Tom.

  4. Bill said,

    May 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Tom must be referring to William Collins, d. 1759. As many complimentary things as one may say of the poetry of Billy Collins, regarding its wit, intelligence, modesty, consistency, and polish, he scarcely seems interested in the sublime.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    May 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Perhaps Billy Collins has more of modesty and wit than sublimity, that’s very true, and point well-taken.

    But compared to my other category, the post-modernist, ‘found poem’ poetry-is-everything-and-everything-is-poetry’ school, Billy Collins IS sublime, for sublimity depends on a hierarchy, and Collins is clearly establishing one by putting the glories of motherhood beside his arts-and-crafts ‘lanyard.’ The lanyard represents the cheapness of contemporary artsty-fartsy poetry, and motherhood our great poetry predecessors, all closer to divine nature. Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness” is a sublime poem in my opinion, as well, and reminds us that ‘sublimity’ is not simply positive assertion, but also the awareness of a fading, a loss. Billy Collins and his lanyard ignites rage in contemporaries like Silliman, who glory in post-modernism punning and trivia and cheapness, the insect-dance of the contemporary. Billy Collins really IS Silliman and friends’ worst nightmare.

    As for William Collins, I’m glad for his example, for I am still reveling in “The Burden of the Past” by W. Jackson Bate, a little book (of lectures) I highly recommend—it is perhaps the most imporant critical work of the 20th century—in which Bate makes a very convincing argument for the importance of the 18th century, how the Romantics, and how we, all our ‘modern’ issues, were already on the table by the 1730s and were widely and deeply considered all through the 18th century.

    “The Passions” by William Collins

    WHEN Music, heavenly maid, was young,
    While yet in early Greece she sung,
    The Passions oft, to hear her shell,
    Throng’d around her magic cell,
    Exulting, trembling, raging, fainting,
    Possest beyond the Muse’s painting;
    By turns they felt the glowing mind
    Disturb’d, delighted, rais’d, refin’d;
    Till once, ’tis said, when all were fir’d,
    Fill’d with fury, rapt, inspir’d,
    From the supporting myrtles round
    They snatch’d her instruments of sound;
    And, as they oft had heard apart
    Sweet lessons of her forceful art,
    Each (for Madness rul’d the hour)
    Would prove his own expressive power.

    First Fear his hand, its skill to try,
    Amid the chords bewilder’d laid,
    And back recoil’d, he knew not why,
    E’en at the sound himself had made.

    Next Anger rush’d: his eyes on fire,
    In lightnings, own’d his secret stings:
    In one rude clash he struck the lyre,
    And swept with hurried hand the strings.

    With woful measures wan Despair
    Low sullen sounds his grief beguiled;
    A solemn, strange, and mingled air,
    ‘Twas sad by fits, by starts ’twas wild.

    But thou, O Hope, with eyes so fair,
    What was thy delighted measure?
    Still it whisper’d promis’d pleasure,
    And bade the lovely scenes at distance hail!
    Still would her touch the strain prolong;
    And from the rocks, the woods, the vale,
    She call’d on Echo still, through all the song;
    And, where her sweetest theme she chose,
    A soft responsive voice was heard at every close;
    And Hope enchanted smil’d, and wav’d her golden hair
    And longer had she sung;—but, with a frown,

    Revenge impatient rose:
    He threw his blood-stain’d sword, in thunder, down:
    And, with a with’ring look,
    The war-denouncing trumpet took,
    And blew a blast so loud and dread,
    Were ne’er prophetic sounds so full of wo!
    And ever and anon, he beat
    The doubling drum with furious heat;
    And, though sometimes, each dreary pause between,
    Dejected Pity, at his side,
    Her soul-subduing voice applied,
    Yet still he kept his wild unalter’d mien,
    While each strain’d ball of sight seem’d bursting from his head.

    Thy numbers, Jealousy, to nought were fix’d;
    Sad proof of thy distressful state!
    Of diff’ring themes the veering song was mix’d;
    And now it courted Love, now raving call’d on Hate.

    With eyes up-rais’d, as one inspir’d,
    Pale Melancholy sat retir’d;
    And, from her wild sequester’d seat,
    In notes by distance made more sweet,
    Pour’d through the mellow horn her pensive soul:
    And, dashing soft from rocks around,
    Bubbling runnels join’d the sound;
    Through glades and glooms the mingled measure stole,
    Or o’er some haunted stream, with fond delay,
    Round an holy calm diffusing,
    Love of peace, and lonely musing,
    In hollow murmurs died away.

    But O! how alter’d was its sprightlier tone
    When Cheerfulness, a nymph of healthiest hue,
    Her bow across her shoulder flung,
    Her buskins gemm’d with morning dew,
    Blew an inspiring air, that dale and thïcket rung,
    The hunter’s call, to Faun and Dryad known.
    The oak-crown’d Sisters, and their chaste-ey’d Queen,
    Satyrs and Sylvan boys were seen,
    Peeping from forth their alleys green:
    Brown Exercise rejoic’d to hear;
    And Sport leapt up, and seized his beechen spear.

    Last came Joy’s ecstatic trial;
    He, with viny crown advancing,
    First to the lively pipes his hands addrest;
    But soon he saw the brisk awak’ning viol,
    Whose sweet entrancing voice he lov’d the best:
    They would have thought who heard the strain
    They saw, in Tempe’s vale, her native maids,
    Amidst the festal sounding shades,
    To some unwearied minstrel dancing,
    While, as his flying fingers kiss’d the strings,
    Love fram’d with Mirth a gay fantastic round:
    Loose were her tresses seen, her zone unbound;
    And he, amidst his frolic play,
    As if he would the charming air repay,
    Shook thousand odours from his dewy wings.

    O Music! sphere-descended maid,
    Friend of Pleasure, Wisdom’s aid!
    Why, goddess! why, to us denied,
    Lay’st thou thy ancient lyre aside?
    As, in that lov’d Athenian bower,
    You learn’d an all-commanding power,
    Thy mimic soul, O Nymph endear’d,
    Can well recall what then it heard.
    Where is thy native simple heart,
    Devote to Virtue, Fancy, Art?
    Arise, as in that elder time,
    Warm, energic, chaste, sublime!
    Thy wonders, in that godlike age,
    Fill thy recording Sister’s page—
    ‘Tis said, and I believe the tale,
    Thy humblest reed could more prevail,
    Had more of strength, diviner rage,
    Than all which charms this laggard age;
    E’en all at once together found,
    Cecilia’s mingled world of sound—
    O bid our vain endeavours cease;
    Revive the just designs of Greece:
    Return in all thy simple state!
    Confirm the tales her sons relate!

    Tom

  6. Bill said,

    May 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Good point on those Billy Collins poems, Tom. However, I question whether the sublime is achievable as an aesthetic effect (to focus the subject more precisely) when it is undercut by understatement and irony. “Forgetfulness” and “The Lanyard” certainly speak to issues that can be the subject matter of sublime poetry, approaching death in one, our debt to our mothers in the other, and they perhaps come closer to realizing the truth of those matters than most poets can, but the poet seems to eschew creating an effect of the sublime in favor of a contemplative wisdom. Those two poems may partake of the beautiful rather than the sublime.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      In this day and age, I’ll take my beauty and my sublimity any way I can get it. Billy Collins at times gets pretty close.

  7. Bill said,

    May 26, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    It’s actually a close call. In both poems we know N. is in the presence of “the sublime,” i.e. the the awesome, an apocalypse of some kind.

  8. noochinator said,

    April 26, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Speaking of the White House, Cecily Strong made some great zingers last night at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner:

    http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4535552/cecily-strong-complete-remarks-2015-whca-dinner


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