Duffy, the British poet laureate, takes on the best-selling Billy Collins.

Billy Collins is a popular American poet who teaches poetry; born in 1941, he is the same age as the Creative Writing Program era, and represents (in many people’s minds) the comfortable, jokey, white middle class.  This following poem was chosen by Rita Dove to  represent Collins in her anthology of 20th Century American poetry, and it features Collins as poetry teacher acting defensively towards the masses who want poems to ‘mean something:’


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

What I find ironic about this is that Collins has succeeded precisely as a ‘poet of meaning;’ all his success turns on meaning; he takes extra pains in his poems to make himself understood by the common reader in poems that boil down, essentially, to jokes one could tell in a bar.  “Introduction to Poetry” has a meaning: poems don’t need to mean anything, and so, ironically, it’s a very typical Collins poem—because it has meaning.

But there’s an extra pleasure to Collins, and this is why he’s good, and the best selling poet alive today.  He manages—with humor’s exaggeration—to laugh at the whole enterprise: he wants his students to “waterski across the surface of a poem,” which, when you think about it, is absurd, and parodies the nutty creative writing teacher lording it over his students who just want to understand.  On one (obvious) level, the poem defends Creative Writing’s modern flip-off—meaning is so 19th century, man!—but on another, more secretive level, the joke is on the modern Creative Writing teacher—urging students to “waterski” (??) on the poem.

Meaning means 3 point shots, lots of them, and lots of points—which one can see on the scoreboard.  Collins piles up the points.  He scores.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-) comes from middle class Great Britain and became British poet laureate in 2009, the first woman to ever hold that distinguished position.  Her poem, “Valentine,” has meaning in the form of an equation: onion = love.  The poem’s metaphorical formula is all the poem is.  You cut onions, luv.  The smell gets under your fingers.


Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

The onion has many uses.  Why shouldn’t an onion be a metaphor for love?   One admires the novelty of the metaphor, which manages to invoke beauty (moon) and earnestness (its fierce kiss will stay on your lips) but the wide-ranging and flexible character of an onion works better for the onion than it does for Duffy’s poem, which finally seems nothing but a clever riff on that flexibility.  The poem never really transcends ‘love is like an onion’ in its conventional, formulaic sense.  The term “lethal” at the end seems forced.  The metaphoric exercise never really comes to life, remaining on the level of a string of nice and somewhat unusual comparisons.  The poem is nicely pasted together, but it never really gets up and walks.  Do onions make us cry like love does?  Of course not, but here, for “Valentine” to work, it would seem the answer, at least for a moment, needs to be yes, because, the poem is finally about…an onion…and not love.  We suppose one could say there aren’t many poems that do much more than this poem does: ride the horse of metaphor for all its worth: “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”  An onion.  But where does the poem finally go?  It doesn’t seem to go anywhere in that last stanza.  This poem is not “cute!” Duffy is careful to tell us.
In case we miss the meaning.
Collins romps 90-77.


  1. Fauna said,

    March 19, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Love is like an onion, old chap.

    An onion, I say.

  2. Fauna said,

    March 19, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Both of these poems are awful, if you ask me.

    Life is meaningless.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      “Life is meaningless.”

      We’ll have to beat that out of you with a hose.

      • Fauna said,

        March 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

        Ha. Please do.

  3. Fauna said,

    March 19, 2012 at 9:07 am

    party at a rich dude’s house

  4. Fauna said,

    March 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

    where’s all the action, man! feels like i’m locks in scarriet having to learn about billy collins. maybe it will build character.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      “All the action?”

      Poets watch sports action very quietly.

      Good wishes are pouring in privately. That’s the way these wary poets are.

      Scarriet don’t mind if you jump and shout
      But that’s not what poetry—I suppose—is all about.

  5. March 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Halftime show!

    The Condoleezza Suite [Excerpt]

    by Nikky Finney

    Concerto no. 7: Condoleezza {working out} at the Watergate

    Condoleezza rises at four,
    stepping on the treadmill.

    Her long fingers brace the two slim handles
    of accommodating steel.

    She steadies her sleepy legs for the long day ahead.
    She doesn’t get very far.

    Her knees buckle wanting back
    last night’s dream.

    [dream #9]

    She is fifteen and leaning forward from the bench,
    playing Mozart’s piano concerto in D minor, alone,
    before the gawking, disbelieving, applauding crowd.

    not [dream #2]

    She is nine, and not in the church that explodes into dust,
    the heart pine floor giving way beneath her friend Denise,
    rocketing her up into the air like a jack-in-the-box
    of a Black girl, wrapped in a Dixie cross.

    She ups the speed on the treadmill, remembering,
    she has to be three times as good.

    Don’t mix up your dreams Condi.

    She runs faster, back to the right, finally hitting her stride.
    Mozart returns to her side.

    She is fifteen again, all smiles, and relocated
    to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains,

    where she and the Steinway
    are the only Black people in the room.

    • Fauna said,

      March 19, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      It’s hard for me to empathize with Condi’s “ambition”, being as ultra-left as I am (to a fault, I hear), but this is somewhat convincing – as a poem

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