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Immersed in his verse

The Trouble With Poetry And Other Poems Billy Collins Random House: 92 pp., $22.95

November 20, 2005|Elizabeth Hoover | Elizabeth Hoover is a writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Poets & Writers magazine.

I wonder how you are going to feel

when you find out

that I wrote this instead of you

BILLY COLLINS, one of America's bestselling poets, is a playful, even mischievous writer, one who charms us with his twists on ordinary situations and the plain-spoken style of his poems. But in his new collection, "The Trouble With Poetry," he has gone from playmate to smart aleck, oozing with ego and self-importance, as the lines, quoted above, attest. It is surprising that he would address his reader in this way. His opening is quickly revealed to be an empty boast, as the "this" he has written instead of us turns out to be insipid verse.

In "Traveling Alone," he imagines that employees of a hotel coffee shop "were ready to open up / to get to know me better." He wishes they would ask him about his writing. The fantasy is not one of connection but of narcissism. Instead of asking the waiters questions and getting to know them, he writes, "I would have continued / as they stopped pouring drinks / and the other passengers turned to listen."

The few interesting poems in this book come when Collins steps outside his comfortable suburban life. "Building With Its Face Blown Off" is touching because of it its simplicity.

How suddenly the private

is revealed in a bombed-out city,

how the blue and white striped wallpaper

of a second story bedroom is now

exposed to the lightly falling snow

as if the room had answered the explosion

wearing only its striped pajamas.

Unfortunately the poem unravels, suddenly shifting to a couple "in another country" on a picnic "pouring wine into two glasses" with "a wicker hamper / filled with bread, cheese, and several kinds of olives" -- a technique too reminiscent of W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts."

Mostly the pieces are simply records of Collins' musings ("If the British call z zed, / I wondered, why not call b bed and d dead?"). He has always been at his best when he dances along the razor edge of cliche, making underhanded fun of it, but in this book he has given up. He writes: "poetry fills me with joy / and I rise like a feather in the wind" and "I want to carry you / and for you to carry me."

Collins once explained his popularity this way: "I think a lot of readers are frustrated with the obscurity and self-indulgence of most poetry." When Associated Press reported his appointment as the nation's poet laureate in 2001, they began, "Billy Collins, a popular poet who makes money at the job.... " His book "Picnic, Lightning," published by a university press where sales expectations for a volume of poetry are in the 1,500 to 2,500 range, has sold more than 50,000 copies. At a time, as Joyce Carol Oates once noted, when the number of people who read poetry is roughly the same as the number of people who write poetry, this is a welcome change.

Collins lambastes poets who rely on obscure references in "The Introduction," where he parodies a poet introducing a poem. "And you're all familiar with helminthology? / It's the science of worms. / Oh, and you will recall that Phoebe Mozee / is the real name of Annie Oakley."

While I agree with Collins that poems relying on impenetrable references alienate the reader, what I find more distressing is solipsism. This can take the form of obscurity, as Collins said, or an intense focus on the self -- "confessional" poetry taken to the extreme, in which we get little beyond a journal entry with line breaks.

The great poets of our time should bring meaning to the political and social chaos around us, writing poetry that transcends the self. In the words of Ralph Ellison, literature should "displace the daunting world, to clear a space for human endeavor and thus keep open the door to the future." What will we be left with if our most prominent poet instead gives us poems like "Evening Alone," about taking a shower while having an Asian fantasy?

In an effort to avoid obscurity, Collins has overshot his mark, stripping away both depth and meaning, offering poems that are understood on the first reading but leave one unsatisfied -- the literary equivalent of fast food.

In the title poem, Collins writes:

The trouble with poetry, I realized

as I walked along a beach one night --

cold Florida sand under my bare feet,

a show of stars in the sky --

the trouble with poetry is

that it encourages the writing of more poetry

Collins should be able to offer more insight than a simplistic dig. He made his career on writing light and humorous verse, and opened up an interesting door for himself by hinting he would take on as formidable a subject as "the trouble with poetry." It is disappointing to see him fall back on one of his trademark gimmicks -- a telescoped setup with an unexpected punch line -- that has worked so nimbly before. Maybe the trouble with Collins' poetry is that it lacks the majesty of Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" or the searing verse of Robert Hayden's "Night, Death, Mississippi," to mention two other former laureates who in their work engaged with the world. *

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