Billy Collins has a popular appeal which annoys the poetry avant-garde—who have no popular appeal.  The reason, the sophisticated say, is that the populace is simple and Collins is simple, and thus the appeal.  But this is too simple. 

A Collins poem is vivid.  That’s his secret.  A Collins poem is first constructed as an objective thing in space, with a certain size and shape.  The poem proper is Collins describing the first poem.  Collins makes his poems twice.  The first constuction exists as a visible three-dimensional object, with light and atmosphere, and all that makes a visible object visible as a visible entity. The second construction is the poem—a translation of the first vision.

It has nothing to do with Collins’ easily understood ideas.   Difficult ideas belong to philosophy, not poetry, for obvious reasons. 

Comforting ideas are dismissed as easy ideas, but this is a gross error.  Philosophy was never meant to comfort—it has to do with the understanding only.  But when ideas do comfort, this is a rare and profound pleasure, like beauty, and poetry is the ideal place for comforting ideas, and to express comforting ideas takes skill and vision.  Authentic comfort requires the sort of vision which produces the vivid effects we get in Collins’ poems.

The following poem, in which Collins banks on advancing to the Sweet 16, is comforting and moral, but note how these qualities exist,  not in the telling, or in metaphor, or in any rhetorical tricks, but in the purely visual aspect of the poem:


The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Collins is underestimated by those who fail to see his poems, and also by those who mistake comforting ideas for easy, or trivial ones.

Here Collins may have met his match, however. 

The following poem by Marie Howe may seem like a Billy Collins poem.

But it’s not.

Collins’ poems exist vividly in time and space, such that their existence precludes the need for metaphor.

Marie Howe’s poem is disturbing/comforting and it all revolves around a metaphor.  The poem is strange, and it’s not fully realized in the way the best Collins poems are.  It does not feel that it is necessary that we be comforted in this manner.  That’s the difference.  The great poem feels strange but inevitable; the almost-great poem always feels strange rather than inevitable.


At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless.
They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house,
at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs,
lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water.
Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow,
I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began
to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable
when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed
to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occurred to me finally
that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction,
I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

—exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn.
The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone.
In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.

What are these scisssors and why do they want to be used?  The poet tells us the scissors feel like “grace,” but do they to the reader? They accumulate, then they are put outside, snowed on, and when the spring mud appears, they are gone.  It’s a very interesting poem, but it feels slightly more odd than necessary.  Is it nature triumphing over man-made things?  In that case, maybe the poem does feel necessary.  But in that case does it feel a little too easily done?

Collins feels like the master who creates a comforting mystery with a few strokes.  Howe is the mannerist who follows in the master’s footsteps, though in this poem she is perhaps equal to him.

Collins 69 Howe 68


  1. Anonymous said,

    May 4, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Marie Howe is more than equal. Not even a big fan, but that poem is a symphony whereas Collins’ seems like a Crash Test Dummies song.

    I think a poem is great because of one thing: can you read the poem again and again and still find something that speaks to you while still giving a little of the initial pleasure/stimulation/comfort.

    I would read both poems again and notice different effects, but Howe’s poem could be listened to again and again. In my humble, opinion.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm


      I see what you mean: there seems to be ‘more’ to the Marie Howe poem.

      The Collins poem is realized, however, entirely in its scene and its action:

      “they think we are looking back at them,
      which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
      and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.”

      The action occurs in front of the reader, naturally, as if its really happening.

      Howe’s poem depends on the metaphor of the scissors: what do they stand for? Answering the question: what do the scissors stand for? is more of an intellectual process.

      Howe’s poem does not happen as purely as the Collins poem does.

      Collins’ imagination has created a beautiful action.

      Howe’s imagination has created an intriguing question.

      Metaphoric thought is once-removed from poetic truth. There is a step which needs to be conscioiusly taken by the mind from scissors to what the scissors signifies. A metaphor resembles an object and its reflection.

      Howe gives us a reflection, Collins, the object, itself.

      Perhaps I have no right to use this criterion. But I feel its truth.


  2. noochinator said,

    May 4, 2012 at 8:32 am

    It could be nice
    To find scissors everywhere—
    The way things are,
    I never find “the good pair”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: