In 1998 I wrote a review of Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. I don’t recall everything I said about the book (and can’t find my copy of the mag in which it appeared) except that I savaged it. I think I wrote that the title, a sentence from Nabokov’s Lolita, was the book’s best line. Feel the snark. Still, my review was, I hope, at least slightly more thoughtful than this one from Amazon reader-reviews that same year:
Sentimental, easily digested valentines for the middling middle class. Give him a chance and he will kill poetry.
I’m happy to notice that, nearly 15 years later, poetry has not been killed by Billy Collins or anyone else. However, in doing some preparatory surfing/reading for this piece, I noticed that Collins is still the preferred whipping-post for those who continue to assert that most Americans just aren’t reading the right books.
What else is new? Didn’t Ezra Pound say the same thing a century ago? And what are the right books for the “middling middle class?” For those who read little poetry and study even less? Who probably write more of it than they read and prefer what they do read to be accessible? Who probably like the idea of poetry better than the stuff itself?
I’d argue they are the books of Billy Collins. That probably sounds like more savagery and snark, but if Collins is writing the kind of poetry he prefers, and there’s a large audience for it, who am I to begrudge his success? He’s a good deal more readable than Rod McKuen, and Rod McKuen hasn’t killed poetry (try as he might). And if Collins didn’t exist, it’s not as if the six-figure advances would be going to Rae Armantrout.
The central fallacy in arguments over what should/shouldn’t be considered poetry worth reading – and the one I committed when I wrote that review – was summed up by Ron Silliman (The New Sentence). Discussing antagonisms of the 60’s and early 70’s, he writes:
Historically, the most important aspect of this dispute was the presumption of a centralized legitimation for poetry, of a homogeneous reading public to be fought over and won. The reality was, and is, that [David] Antin and [Robert] Lowell came from, and spoke to, different communities. To deny either writer the status of poet is not so much to question their skill or vision as it is to deny the readers of each the legitimacy of their own existence as a community.
One could argue that the Community-of-Lowell was far more academically entrenched, and thus more influential, than the Community-of-Antin, which would of course inform the latter’s distaste for the former, but I think Silliman’s point is generally correct. People read what they like. Not only do they read what they like, they seek to read what they already like. I don’t see a large audience moving easily between Billy Collins and, say, Russell Edson (I have a hard enough time selling Russell Edson to my small, captive audience of students).
An important question for American poets whose work is perhaps more “difficult” than Billy Collins’: Who comprises the audience you want for your work? If it’s a large number of perceptive and well-read poetry lovers thoroughly versed in the history of the genre, you have two options: 1) Move to Ireland, 2) Give up that idea. If it’s a more modest number of engaged readers, you might take a page out of Collins’ playbook, actively seek that audience out, and engage them. That audience might not be as large, but it could be all yours.
When some obvious booby tells me he has liked a poem of mine, I feel as if I had picked his pocket. –W.H. Auden