So I’m here with Marla Muse, once again, as we are about to begin play that will bring us closer to crowning a Best American Poetry Champion in 2010.

Marla, could it be a Canadian?

It could.  Magaret Atwood’s poem from Richard Howard’s 1995 volume, “Bored.”  Atwood broke Franz Wright’s heart in triple-overtime in Sweet Sixteen.  We won’t soon forget that one!

No, we won’t.   Atwood goes against William Kulik in the North final.

What does Billy Collins have to do to advance against Stephen Dunn?  Dunn, if you remember won his game in the last second against Robert Pinsky.  Meanwhile, Collins rolled over Harry Mathews with a swarming defense as “Composed Over Three Miles From Tintern Abbey” proved too much for “Histoire” to handle.

Tom, I think Billy has to get it to Wordsworth.  That’s the guy who has taken him this far. And the lambs have to bound, Tom, the lambs really have to bound.

They’ve been bounding and bounding well.  How about the two American women left in the tournament…not well known…but they’re very tough…

They are…Reb Livingston in the South final will be facing Bernard Welt…who is nervous, we’ve already seen that…and Janet Bowdan will be defending her chance to go to the Final Four in the West against Lewis “Buzz” Buzbee, who, in contrast to Welt, seems very relaxed.

Tarzan has brought his hammock to the West bracket final…

And Jane and Cheetah, of course…

Bowdan’s poem is lovely, isn’t it?

Yes, Tom, Bowdan’s poem is from Rita Dove’s 2000 volume.   Bowdan could go all the way.

We can feel the tension in the air here as the poets and publishers pour into the arena for these four contests.  I’ve never felt such excitement, really, since Athens, and those playwrighting contests, when I was just a young girl…

Marla Muse, you don’t look a day over 2,000!

Thanks, Tom!


the idiocy of rural life” –Karl Marx

let the young Lambs bound”  –Wordsworth

Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey

I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.

The fellow may be gazing
over an English landscape,
hillsides dotted with sheep,
a row of tall trees topping the downs,

or he could be moping through the shadows
of a dark Bavarian forest,
a wedge of cheese and a volume of fairy tales
tucked into his rucksack.

But the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time it is not nearly as good.
I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

Something is always missing—
swans, a glint on the surface of a lake,
some minor but essential touch.
Or the quality of things has diminished.

The sky was a deeper, more dimensional blue,
clouds were more cathedral-like,
and water rushed over rock
with greater effervescence.

From our chairs we have watched
the poor author in his waistcoat
as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood
and mills around in a field of weeds.

We have heard the poets long dead
declaim their dying
from a promontory, a riverbank,
next to a haycock, within a copse.

We have listened to their dismay,
the kind that issues from poems
the way water issues forth from hoses,
the way the match always gives its little speech on fire.

And when we put down the book at last,
lean back, close our eyes,
stinging with print,
and slip in the bookmark of sleep,

we will be schooled enough to know
that when we wake up
a little before dinner
things will not be nearly as good as they once were.

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray,

the glossy gardenia drooping
in its chipped terra-cotta pot.
And on the floor, shoes, socks,
the browning core of an apple.

Nothing will be as it was
a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
before our naps, back in that Golden Age
that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch.

Billy Collins (1998, Hollander)


Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
“O.K.,” she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day’s specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

During the meal, Seth took the initiative. He inquired into Tina’s fascism,
About which she was reserved, not out of reticence but because Seth’s sexism
Had aroused in her a desire she felt she should hide – as though her Maoism
Would willy-nilly betray her feelings for him. She was right. Even her deliberate militarism
Couldn’t keep Seth from realizing that his attraction was reciprocated. His own Marxism-Leninism
Became manifest, in a compulsive way that piled the Ossa of confusion on the Pelion of racism.

Next, what? Food finished, drinks drunk, bills paid – what racism
Might not swamp their yearning in an even greater confusion of fascism?
But women are wiser than words. Tina rested her hand on his thigh and, a-twinkle with Marxism-Leninism,
Asked him, “My place?” Clarity at once abounded under the flood-lights of sexism,
They rose from the table, strode out, and he with the impetuousness of young militarism
Hailed a cab to transport them to her lair, heaven-haven of Maoism.

In the taxi he soon kissed her. She let him unbutton her Maoism
And stroke her resilient skin, which was quivering with shudders of racism.
When beneath her jeans he sense the superior Lycra of her militarism,
His longing almost strangled him. Her little tongue was as potent as fascism
In its elusive certainty. He felt like then and there tearing off her sexism
But he reminded himself: “Pleasure lies in patience, not in the greedy violence of Marxism-Leninism.”

Once home, she took over. She created a hungering aura of Marxism-Leninism
As she slowly undressed him where he sat on her overstuffed art-deco Maoism,
Making him keep still, so that she could indulge in caresses, in sexism,
In the pursuit of knowing him. He groaned under the exactness of her racism
– Fingertip sliding up his nape, nails incising his soles, teeth nibbling his fascism.
At last she guided him to bed, and they lay down on a patchwork of Old American militarism.

Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism,
Easing one thumb into her fascism, with his free hand coddling the tip of her Maoism,
Until, gasping with appreciative racism, both together sink into the revealed glory of sexism.

Harry Mathews (1988, Ashbery)

These two remarkable poems show that optimistic humor is ideally suited to poetry.  This sometimes gets lost amid the elegy and experimentation which  dominates modern verse.

There’s a bright, snappy, Enlightenment verve to poems like these.  Both Collins and Mathews slay dug-in sensibilities—Collins explodes the nostalgic notion of the good old days, or good old golden age, while Mathews has fun with the high-church seriousness of political beliefs.

Here is wit, but not the brief variety; these authors take stock of their subject first, and draw the reader in with conversational intimacy.  They convince with repetition, they accomplish their aim by placing their art within a frame of inevitability, but within that frame is a rhetorical looseness; one could fault Collins for the awful line, “as frequently as rain occurs in life” but this would be to miss the point.  Such ‘badness’ contributes to the necessary looseness, which in turn contributes to the trust between author and reader; such badness is like air in food which gives it lightness.  Mathews is under the same burden; the joke of his poem forbids elegant rhetoric from occuring, but the details add up differently, badly, in fact, but this is how the joke must work and the joke works in the only way it can, by distorting details for the sake of the whole, which adds up to satire against another existence, one smoother, apparently, than the Mathews poem, that of political pretense.

There has been some discussion behind the scenes of Scarriet lately on the nature of poetry, for when a large variety of poems are forced to compete, as in this March Madness tournament, one naturally begins to wrestle with the question of not only which of the poems is better, but which of the two is more like a poem. Why this question: which one is more like a poem? should even arise, I do not know, but it is almost as if, when we are faced with two poems we enjoy equally, to choose the best, we fall back on this question, it being human nature, or perhaps the nature of thought itself, to slightly favor whatever is more universal over what is more particular.

To be brief: a poem is, in words, whatever takes place in a certain space.

How do words make something take place and how do words create a certain space?

Meter and rhyme can create their own artificial space (a stanza) without the words having to mean anything.  Poems have traditionally featured a series of stanzas in which meaning is conveyed.

But meaning itself can create space—without stanzas.  Stanzas made it necessary for meter and rhyme and even the verse line to exist; not the other way around.  Most of us assume that the stanza is a mere outgrowth of the line, when the reverse is true: the stanza actually came first.  The stanza is the space, the room, in which poetry behaves as poetry.

All modern forms follow from this idea.  In today’s poetry, the room, or space (stanza) and things taking place within that room or space, (stanza- action) occur more frequently in word-meaning rather than word-sound.  I think this sums up the whole matter quite nicely.   The Divine Comedy has more rooms and more occurances, but otherwise is the same, in terms of form and content, as the haiku.

Billy Collins carves out space like so:

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray

As long as Collins works in stanzas, he doesn’t really need the line, or he can get away with lines of no interest whatsoever, such as “the walls and windows now.”    His lines can have no interest, the lines of a Billy Collins poem can be invisible, more or less, as long as he uses stanzas; few critics really understand how Collins’ poetry can even work. These critics are blind to the stanza-principle and in their blindness dismiss Collins as middle-brow fluff, going so far as to say that it is not  poetry at all.  The error involves the false belief that the line precedes, and gives rise to, stanza when, in fact, the reverse is true.  The fact that Billy Collins is successful without bothering to write good lines is proof of the thesis here outlined: the stanza, (the room) not the line (sequential unit), is the essence of poetry.

Highly musical poetry can be stanza poetry. Prose can also be stanza poetry.   The advocates of the line tend to favor either the highly musical poem or the highly prosaic poem, but not both.

Simple folk with no theory enjoy both. For the over-learned, too proud to enjoy Billy Collins, or too cutting-edge to enjoy Shelley, I have just provided a way out of your essential confusion; likewise for the formalists who cannot reconcile in their minds a Shelley and a Collins.

One might have a tendency then, to choose the Mathews over the Collins because “Histoire” by Mathews is a sestina, and features language with more repetition, and thus would appear to be more poetic, but this is to put a minor principle (with some merit) before philosophy plus perception (which has a great deal more).

Billy Collins is the winner.

%d bloggers like this: