THE THREE TYPES OF POETRY

I like discovering new poems.  I almost said new poets, but that is too personal: poetry is marvelous because it allows us to experience human delight without all the messy and inconvenient aspects of humanity—poetry sweetly bars the heavy and smelly poet—bragging, disappointing, spotted, ruined, dying—from our sight.  The minute I start following a poet I will cease to love poetry.  My lover certainly ought to be poetic, but they don’t have to write poetry, and I don’t need more lovers; I don’t need poets—keep them away!  A poet will invariably disappoint with a new poem.  A poem is what we should be looking for when we pursue poetry, and no poet has a monopoly on poems.

Scarriet has defended Billy Collins, but this doesn’t mean we believe every Billy Collins poem is good.  Defending Billy Collins only indicates that there is something that we recognize as a “Billy Collins poem” that is worthy of notice.

Critics have nothing to do with the ‘likes and dislikes’ of readers.  Worthy of notice is just that—worthy of notice.  To hear these Collins detractors, you would think they were forced to kiss Billy Collins.  The whole matter of whether Billy Collins is worthy of notice, or not, is one of pure intellectuality, and it involves a sensible acknowledgement of poetic classification.

There are three distinct kinds of poetry, and the Collins poem happens to be one of them.

These three types of poetry are important not just as frozen types—they have a history—we can trace their development over time.  The Billy Collins poem, for instance, goes back as far as “Dover Beach.”  Along the way, the rhyming aspect of “Dover Beach” is jettisoned, and the poet learns to navigate without it, keeping the spirit the same.

Another feature which makes the three types essential, and not merely arbitrary, is this: these three types strongly repel each other; the three kinds of personalities which enjoy these three kinds of poetry would fight if they were left in the same room.

I recently discovered a new poem—a major discovery, because it is a perfectly realized Collins poem—but not written by Billy Collins.  It therefore flashed upon me that I was in the presence of a powerful type of poem, and this poem both attracted and repelled my critic’s nature so forcefully, that almost immediately the three types of poetry sprang up before me.

Here is the poem, by George Bilgere:

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
They’re happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But I’ll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cézanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.

This poem is wonderful in a way that would repel the likes of Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout and the avant-garde, simply for its clarity.  Those who believe that poetry is verse and not prose would also dislike this poem.  But here it stands.

Briefly, then, the George Bilgere poem is wonderful because of the way it begins with “They sit around the house,” referring to unused objects of human imagination and improvement that bespeak, universally: limits, despair, and finally longing, gently mocking human limitation with the very longing that hovers about the unused objects themselves, unused because there is too much longing? not enough? and finally it is words themselves, objects that “sit around” in the poem itself which is the poem’s grand, secret symbol in its playful and longing imagination that fights against the despair of not having enough will to improve, or imagine, or be useful.

The poem has a Newtonian logic—moving forward (in humor and optimisim) with a force equal to its moving backwards (in realism and pessimism).  The language learning tapes are transformed from an object into something human, and even passionate, in a manner that is logical, humorous, and delightful.

But how different is Bilgere’s poem compared to something like this:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott”.

This is Part I of the famous Tennyson poem; notice how the poem not only gives us luxurious sound, but it paints a scene, as well.

Ekphrasis is overrated, for it is a hundred times better to paint—with a poem—a painting that doesn’t exist yet, than to merely describe one that already does exist.  And this is what the—currently underrated—Tennyson does.

By comparison, the work by Mr. Bilgere exists in the realm of idea only—it’s a funny story about neglected hobbies; it is not a painting; the Tennyson, however, begins, “On either side…”  Tennyson paints a world; the Bilgere is jokey and anecdotal: “They sit around the house…”  These two poems are different kinds of art.

The third type of poem is currently the most common and it owes more to simple human nature than to anything else. We all know “The Lady of Shalott”—and we all know human nature.  Human nature produces envy on a whim—if someone else has something nice, we decide we don’t like it, on account of the fact that it is nice.  We disparage the nice; secretly at first, and then more boldly, as we find peers who feel the same envy we do, and then even more boldly as we equate nice with evil itself, in political terms…the rich have nice houses and the rich are unkind and therefore the nice itself is—not really nice!

And so the third type of poem is all-encompassing and attracts many people: amateurs, puritans, students, and scholars, alike, and identifies itself as avant-garde, experimental, politicalThe whole point of this third type of poetry, avant-garde poetry, is to be unpleasant and ugly.

One example will suffice.  From William Carlos Williams, published in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002:

LEAR

When the world takes over for us
and the storm in the trees
replaces our brittle consciences
(like ships, female to all seas)
when the few last yellow leaves
stand out like flags on tossed ships
at anchor—our minds are rested

Yesterday we sweated and dreamed
or sweated in our dreams walking
at a loss through the bulk of figures
that appeared solid, men or women,
but as we approached down the paved
corridor melted—Was it I?—like
smoke from bonfires blowing away

Today the storm, inescapable, has
taken the scene and we return
our hearts to it, however made, made
wives by it and though we secure
ourselves for a dry skin from the drench
of its passionate approaches we
yield and are made quiet by its fury

Pitiful Lear, not even you could
out-shout the storm—to make a fool
cry! Wife to its power might you not
better have yielded earlier? as on ships
facing the seas were carried once
the figures of women at repose to
signify the strength of the waves’ lash.

There is no way to reconcile whatever this poem is doing—or thinks it is doing—with the first two types of poetry.  But a certain perversity in human nature will defend this third kind against the other two, and none will be reconciled.

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11 Comments

  1. Anonymous said,

    August 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Jesus, are you are sure that’s not Billy Collins writing under an alias? I hate it and begrudgingly admire it for all the same reasons. Goddamned flabby, self-indulgent Americans. I suppose everything you write in praise of it is accurate and it’s probably not fair to hate a poem because you think the writer sounds like a candy ass. But it really made me vomit in my mouth.

  2. marcusbales said,

    August 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Billy Collins Eats A Cupcake

    Before bed I ate too many cupcakes,
    red velvet cake and dark chocolate frosting,
    with ice-cold milk,
    then brushed my teeth and got in bed
    and turned out the light and tried to fall asleep,
    but for some reason all I could think about
    was that there are people in the world who live
    for two days on the number of calories
    an overweight guy had eaten
    as an unnecessary snack,
    and the darkness got darker
    the harder I closed my eyes,
    except for those red floatie things
    you see when you close your eyes too hard,
    red and black and red and black
    with flashes of milk white.

    Is there some cosmic accounting system keeping track?
    If I run the water too long brushing my teeth,
    or take an extra few moments luxuriating
    in the hot shower on a cold morning,
    or have a second — ok, third — helping,
    or ice cream for desert or
    red velvet cupcakes and dark chocolate frosting,
    with ice-cold milk,
    for a bedtime snack —
    (a bedtime snack! think of the implications:
    millions, maybe billions,
    of people don’t even know if they
    are going to eat tomorrow at all,
    or didn’t eat today) —
    what am I doing?

    I read of an Ethiopian child
    newly arrived in a US elementary school
    from a refugee camp
    whose experience his whole life had been
    that all the water there was in the world
    had been what his mother could carry in a jar,
    and who could not be kept
    from racing to the water fountain to turn it on
    just to watch the cool, clear water run.

    Warm in bed, snuggled with my partner,
    the automatic climate control on
    the water ready to flush or flow at the turn of a knob,
    teeth brushed, and really too full
    of red velvet cupcakes with dark chocolate frosting
    and ice-cold milk
    from the well-stocked refrigerator
    that isn’t even top of the line
    over there between the gas range
    and the door into the utility room
    with its waiting washer and dryer,
    across from the pantry with its collection of food
    and food gadgets,
    what is too much,
    what is plenty,
    and what is waste?

    I fell asleep.

    • noochinator said,

      August 24, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      I wonder if his dreams were deep
      When he finally fell asleep;
      Mine last night were kind of stark
      After three shots of Maker’s Mark.

  3. James Miller said,

    August 25, 2012 at 4:14 am

    Petty and mean minor poetry rules the day. Unwise Purchases would be nauseating enough if it were a character speaking in the larger context of a novel – alone as poetry it is unbearable.

    The ironic thing is that these types of poets consider someone like Tennyson to be pretentious.

  4. August 25, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    I like some of Bilgere’s poems too. Here’s another of his:

    The Return of Odysseus

    When Odysseus finally does get home
    he is understandably upset about the suitors,
    who have been mooching off his wife for twenty years,
    drinking his wine, eating his mutton, etc.

    In a similar situation today he would seek legal counsel.
    But those were different times. With the help
    of his son Telemachus he slaughters roughly
    one hundred and ten suitors
    and quite a number of young ladies,
    although in view of their behavior
    I use the term loosely. Rivers of blood
    course across the palace floor.

    I too have come home in a bad mood.
    Yesterday, for instance, after the department meeting,
    when I ended up losing my choice parking spot
    behind the library to the new provost.

    I slammed the door. I threw down my book bag
    in this particular way I have perfected over the years
    that lets my wife understand
    the contempt I have for my enemies,
    which is prodigious. And then with great skill
    she built a gin and tonic
    that would have pleased the very gods,
    and with epic patience she listened
    as I told her of my wrath, and of what I intended to do
    to so-and-so, and also to what’s-his-name.

    And then there was another gin and tonic
    and presently my wrath abated and was forgotten,
    and peace came to reign once more
    in the great halls and courtyards of my house.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    August 25, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Bilgere’s poems sound like stand-up comedy for a PG, educated audience, don’t they?

    Also, in poetry like Collins’ and Bilgere’s, I don’t think it’s an accident that content-wise, we often get a comparison of what is old and sublime with what is modern, and trivial. The content is paralleled implicitly by the form—because as readers trained by the convention of the old, Tennysonian forms, we do Bilgere a favor and read his poem as if it were a poem of Tennysonian form, thus buying into the illusion that Bilgere’s story is unfolding as a poem, and not as a piece of prose. Because it seems to unfold as a poem, it, in fact, does unfold as a poem only because we (modern readers reading a modern prose-poem) unconsciously read it that way.

  6. hfews said,

    August 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I think the Williams poem is lovely and psychologically profound the way certain dreams are. Both it and the Tennyson poem of course get some added weight from the history of literature behind them. The Biligere poem, like many of Collins’ poems, is a romp of fancy and good-clean fun. It’s just a steady diet of those poems (like too many pints of Ben & Jerry’s, which are fanciful, and fancifully named, concoctions of sugar and butterfat, supporting some other good natural ingredients) that sates quickly and tips to a point of nausea.

  7. hfews said,

    August 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Also, did I miss something. What are these 3 essential types exactly; and of all poems thru history, only three?

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 26, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      hfews,

      The three types of poetry are simply this: First, the Tennsyon is the supreme example of poetry as art: it paints a landscape and creates interest with sound; the lesser type of poem which is mere doggerel borrows some of the Tennysonian sound, but none of its painting. The second is the Collins poem which is the poem of rhetoric and idea, borrowing a certain superficial remblance to Tennyson’s formal qualities, and appreciation of this type of prose poem is aided by audience conditioning. The third type occurs from a perverse desire to rebel against the other two—the Williams does not rise to any standard; the best it can do is, as you say, intimate a “dream” which makes no sense. But the Tennyson is far more dream-like than the Williams; the Tennyson beats the Williams in every possible way, but the third type will always exist, human nature being what it is, always at odds with perfectionism.

      Tom

  8. KW here said,

    September 17, 2014 at 1:27 am

    It’s going to be end of mine day, however before ending I
    am reading this impressive post to increase my know-how.

  9. February 17, 2017 at 12:32 am

    in the Universe all comes in threes
    the birds, the bees, the trees;
    yet three can often be of type
    three types of bird, three types of bees, three types of trees;
    three types also are these.

    and so the universe multiplies
    until it’s sagging branches bows.

    in poetry there’s types of poets:
    women and men the living and dead.
    only three I said.
    Cause women and men can both be dead
    though when were born were living instead.

    And if dead, the poems dead too
    and if living, living poets a-muse they do.

    the dead create nothing but death
    or wait on The Word (don’t hold your breath)
    these also create nothing (that lives)
    or push their brains (till something gives).

    of women and men I will refrain
    to speak of them brings little gain
    just read their powms twill explain
    why divided types cause such pain.


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