Monday, January 07, 2008
The Poetry Foundation list of 2007 poetry best sellers is no shocker. It doesn’t logically follow that the best poetry ever written is necessarily being written right now simply because it seems that more poetry is being written now than ever before, but what explains the myopia of this list? My answer would be that the poetry of Billy Collins simply reinforces the expectations and prejudices of the reader and the public at large is not interested in reading poetry that requires anything more than minimal effort. Collins’ poetry never fails to lead the reader to an "aw-shucks" moment. Banalities should be used, if ever, as a starting point only. Poems should introduce the reader to something not seen before, not reinforce the commonplace and provide cornball reassurance. Charles Bukowski didn’t find his massive audience by dealing in banalities, but his uber-macho persona has succeeded in selling books where his poetry falls short of taking the art any farther than the hundreds of lesser well-known poets who are living right now and writing poems that are far more successful on many levels, technical and otherwise.
William Carlos Williams excelled at extracting valuable ore from everyday moments and distilling the quintessence of these thoughts and feelings into poetry. Every syllable in a poem by William Carlos Williams, or Emily Dickinson, is a counterpoint to the cacophony of everyday noise in life that seeks to deaden the senses. Collins would sooner cover the world in Formica rather than with what’s needed right now...granite.
According to Collins: ...I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.
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It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.
Asphodel, That Greeny Flower still serves as a prime example of how Williams could illuminate without leaving the reader behind. The universal aspect of what he wrote could be carried through in any language, because real insights are offered. The most effective humor in poetry always falls on the side of satire. A comedic element often exposes hypocrisy more memorably than anything. There’s nothing wrong with occasional poetry or appreciating humor or lightness of touch when that’s what works, but it appears that Collins’ efforts to spread an appreciation of poetry only served to spread an appreciation for himself.
Readers would be better off investing in the big new Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, or Frank O’Hara: Poems from the Tibor de Nagy Editions than picking up yet another book by an author such as Collins or Bukowski. In readers’ defense, there’s no resource out there to unmask charlatans and poets end up being the only audience for poets’ poets such as Whalen who of anyone writing in the last century was most deserving of a far wider audience.