About Billy Collins
Billy Collins will be coming to the FGCU campus, where I teach, this Sunday evening. The event is free for students, but it'll be $20 per pop for the public. Then he'll be available to meet a handful of students the following morning.
This semester I am teaching a class on "popular" 20th-century poetry; we started with Eliot and The Waste Land, just to give the students something of a counterweight, with Eliot being "famous," but not necessarily popular. We then have gone to Robert Frost, and we'll be doing Billy Collins this week.
So, because on Collins' latest book-jacket there is yet again the direct comparison to Frost on his jacket: "A sort of poet not seen since Robert Frost," I decided to have the students write an analysis of one of Collins' poems, looking at Frost as an antecedent. Anyway, in my own re-reading of Frost (especially his great poem, "Home Burial"), and then reading Collins, it's very hard not to see Collins as a featherweight.
He's bright, witty, and charming, playful and smart, every bit the suburban, friendly, and accessible poet he claims to be. So in the most superficial sense, because the poetry is in "simple" language, capturing "ordinary" experience (again, from the book jacket), he is like Robert Frost. But those rather facile qualities truly dominate 20th-century American poetry: Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Francis, William Carlos Williams, Ogden Nash, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, William Stafford, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Tony Hoagland, Kevin Young, Mary Karr are just 16 poets to name, off the top of my head, who use simple language to write about ordinary experience.
So what distinguishes Collins?
When he first came on the scene, about 20 years ago, there did appear something fresh about his appearance--the white, male, suburban, college professor poet, a Prufrock but one at ease within his own skin. He stood as a poet for those who didn't like the surreal acrobatics of the New York School of poets, for those who thought the confessional school was a dead end, for those who were scared of Slam Poets, for those who found the pyrotechniques of LANGUAGE poets too theory-laden, for those who found the New Expansivist/New Formalist/New Narrative poets a little intriguing but too mannered or difficult, for those who didn't want to know what the DarkRoom Collective was, for those who were too afraid to go to the Nuyorican Cafe. His poetry is skillful, to be sure, a deft, even flip quality that allows the reader to easily jump on board and affords the reader a vantage that is just on this side of smugness. He is so beloved because he is shallow, not unlike the way in which Maya Angelou is shallow. I cannot find one cantankerous strand in any of his poems.
Okay, so I have bought into the notion that American poetry is that breech birth between Dickinson and Whitman, between Pound, Eliot, Williams, Moore, Rukeyser, Olson, cummings, Frost, and all the other poets above. I bought the argument that Emerson raised for a poet, the difficult and harrowing and obliterating vision. What I dislike about Collins is that his poetry sheds such a friendly light that I am very suspicious of what it illuminates. You see, his poetry demands so little. Thus, he's a great poet for those who want little out of poetry.