Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Going Ballistic

I like Billy Collins, despite the horrible rumors I've heard about him. I enjoy his poetry, especially Nine Horses, which he graciously signed for me when I met him several years ago at a writers conference.

Given his remarkable popularity, I find myself in the minority about his latest effort–& I use that word ironically–Ballistics, which The New York Times calls a “supple collection” & Vanity Fair describes as “Killingly clever,” both facetiously, I’ll assume.

While he's often praised as casual & conversational, Collins is also wordy. Take “January in Paris”–please! The first four stanzas serve merely to set the scene. This seems particularly excessive in that most readers are familiar, if only vicariously, with Paris. For me, the poem begins somewhere around line twenty with Valery’s abandoned poems “Wandering the streets of the city half-clothed” in need of “a final line/or two, a little verbal flourish at the end.”

This “little verbal flourish at the end” brings me to another problem: Such “flourishes” are to Collins as schmaltz is to Spielberg. Rather than relying on a signature sense of closure, perhaps Collins should consider cutting his poems two or three lines short, if for no other reason than to reject his current, albeit successful, formula. As for Spielberg, if he were to remove the schmaltz, he would essentially stop making movies altogether, a splendid idea in itself.

Another problem in Ballistics is that nearly every line of every poem ends with a noun/pronoun. "Aubade"--to choose at random as example--opens:

If I lived across the street from myself
and I was sitting in the dark
on the edge of my bed
at five o’clock in the morning,

I might be wondering what the light . . .

Each line, if not technically an end stop, is virtually so, lacking any thought-provoking enjambment. It’s as if Collins means to dumb down poetry in hopes of reaching a mainstream audience.

Perhaps to this end, Collins often inserts himself into the poem--zing!--not merely as the first person speaker, but as the poet in the act of composing. This nod to post-modernism may work at times, but generally speaking, I’d like to see more distance between Collins & his subject.

While it may seem creative to muse on what one may erroneously think a term, such as "Baby Listening" or "Bathtub Families," means, Collins decides that he also needs to explain what the term actually means. Gentle reader, I’m not violent by nature, but I can be provoked. To assuage my anger, I suggest Collins--giving the reader credit for at least enough intelligence to know how to Google--omit the explanations, combine the two poems into one & never show anyone.

That goes for “The Golden Years” as well as “Despair.” My research indicates that Collins invented the fictitious Chinese poets Wa-Hoo & Ye-Hah in the latter for “cutting-edge comic effect,” according to their imaginary contemporary, Fuk Yu, an interpretation shared by phony Russian literary critic, Yuri Dumaski.

Add to the better-never-seen list “Hippos on Holiday,” in which Collins concludes that “Only a mean-spirited reviewer/Would ask on holiday from what?” Actually, that’s the nice reviewer. However, so as to not to cast myself in the role of curmudgeon, I'll barely mention "The Day Lassie Died," a half-assed parody of Frank O'Hara.

If I’m overcritical, it’s because I expect more from the former U.S. Poet Laureate. Besides, he shows no compunction when pointing the gun at an anonymous poet in the title poem or when he speaks of “the intolerable poetry of my compatriots” in “Le Chien.” On that point, I may have an inkling, as in “The Effort,” as to what he’s trying to say.


Riley said...

I didn't hear much after you saying you'd heard terrible rumors about him. Do tell!

Matt Morris said...

Haha, that's what we in the biz call "a hook." I've not actually heard anything bad about Collins other than some people say he's arrogant, some say he's overrated, but he had a favorable response to my poetry, so if anything, I feel guilty about panning his book. I'm not saying he's a bad poet; this is just a bad book.