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november poem-a-day, day 8

November 8, 2010

Today’s November PAD Chapbook Challenge prompt spoke to me right away. It asked us to write an agreement poem, and one of the suggestions was to make an agreement with your reader through direct address, like Billy Collins. I knew right away I should have fun (yes, I said fun) with my relationship poem obsession.

Here is the poem I wrote for today’s assignment. (I have pasted below it some notes — a long Carolee ramble — about Billy Collins from when I was reading him a few weeks ago as part of my poets laureate study.)



When I first started getting serious about reading and writing poetry, one of the first things I learned was that people who are serious about reading and writing poetry don’t like (or don’t admit publicly to liking) Billy Collins. Some criticism says his poems engage directly with the reader too often. Some criticism says his poems are lukewarm instead of intense. Some criticism says he lacks skill. Some people very simply seem not to like him because he’s popular.

There is an extremely harsh review (attack?) on Collins’ book Sailing Alone Around the Room in a 2002 issue of Drunken Boat. It compares him to Kenny G. and Tori Spelling. It says he lacks ambition. It says he’s dumbed-down.

When critics identify specific shortcomings, I can listen. I can entertain discussions of craft. For example, I can see where some people may think his sentiments aren’t earned or that the poems come at things too gently. (However, I think it is unfair to say he lacks skill.) What I don’t understand is the vehemence in the criticism. It’s as though critics fear Collins has some sort of highly contagious plague that will infect all of poetry, and that as a result, poetry will die a slow, humiliating death. People are crazy.

So what if Collins’ style isn’t to The Standard Set By The Man Behind The Curtain. So what if Collins is extremely popular. Everything’s a personal affront to poets who take themselves too seriously. He has found something that works for him. He has found something that sells. He has made his way putting his arm around the reader and taking them along with him to his poems where they chuckle together or sigh or reminisce. There’s nothing wrong with establishing that sort of ease and rapport (trust) — especially since Collins really wants poetry to be a part of everyone’s daily life.

I enjoy Collins’ stories (“The Lanyard” and “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” are two of my favorites) and his metaphors. Here are the last three lines from “Advice to Writers:”

… cover the pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

I can see the letters as ants marching down the page. I think it’s wonderful. It’s certainly memorable, as are the images in his 9/11 poem “The Names” (memory is a “dim warehouse” and “X” stands “if it can, for the ones unfound”). For me, that’s one thing that gives poetry an advantage over prose: its phrases, its handfuls of words, stick with us. Like it or not, we remember Collins and his narratives. He does something right.

  1. November 8, 2010 12:03 pm

    I haven’t read a whole lot of Billy Collins — I like some of what I’ve read a lot and some I don’t like so much — but the vehement dislike he inspires among many self-identified poets is pretty clearly jealousy, jealousy, jealousy.

    That & he lets down the side by showing that it’s not simply poetry that’s unpopular these days: it’s poetry as most self-identified poets write it. If it’s possible for a poet to be popular, it might just mean that the rest of us are unpopular because we’re not really very good at it. As opposed to it being -the high austerity of our calling, our wonderful subtlety, and the richness of our vision that’s putting people off 🙂

  2. November 8, 2010 12:14 pm

    I really enjoyed your poem about the sushi chef named Julio. Next time, you should try not to sleep with him before he has brought you the first green plate.

  3. Tish Lester permalink
    November 8, 2010 4:13 pm

    I shuffled on over here from the Poetic Asides PAD challenge – wary of links, it has taken me eight days…I compeltely give up now; you are gorgeous! You are one fabulously talented, entertaining poet. Thanks for sharing. Holy crow…

  4. November 9, 2010 1:22 am

    Another shuffle over from the PAD challenge…what a wonderifical poem. Love it.


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