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March 6, 2007

In Case You Missed It—March 6, 2007

The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems

Billy Collins is no Shakespeare, and he’s certainly no Robert Frost—one of his many predecessors as America’s Poet Laureate. That’s just fine with him. In a time when the language of Byron would make your average high school student sick to his stomach, Billy Collins is all about, as he phrases it, “hospitable” poems. He’s often lauded for writing poems that are as deep as they are accessible. Like a modern William Carlos Williams, his poems are delightful and fun to read while showing that ambiguity is not a necessary component of good poetry.

The Trouble With Poetry follows in this same vein. I imagine that most U of C students don’t place much value on “accessibility” in poetry, but Collins’s poems don’t disappoint in terms of depth, either. Each one is an inconspicuous bundle of unending surprises. Like all good poets, Collins is entertaining to read the first time through, and upon each subsequent reading tiny nuances and meanings jump out of the pages, rewarding a little bit of that enjoyable effort that goes into reading any poetry.

What sets Collins apart from most poets is his often sarcastic and irreverent tone. With each poem, you get the feeling that he’s not taking himself or the poem too seriously. He once created a ridiculously restrictive poetic form called a paradelle in order to mock the restrictive form of the sonnet. That poem, “Paradelle for Susan,” is hilarious and biting, without lacking artistic merit. One of the poems from The Trouble With Poetry even mocks the reader for not being creative enough to think up a poem as good as the one that’s mocking him or her.

Some of the lines in Collins’s poems seem garishly out of place, in contrast to his usually light tone. He’ll often go on long, rambling descriptions of the world around him, like describing the kitchen he’s sitting in or the food he’s eating while writing a poem about a seemingly totally unrelated subject. With Collins, it’s sometimes hard to tell if these lengthy monologues are another jab at poetry’s tendency to wax descriptive or an integral part of the poem. It’s my own opinion that he’s trying to set a mundane yet subtly meaningful scene, making the statement that poetry sneaks up on the poet “as a cold wave swirled around my feet.”

It’s a little sad that, despite Collins’s best efforts, poetry will probably remain a cryptic vault full of intellectual traps and unending confusion for most Americans. When was the last time you heard of a book of poetry being reviewed by anyone other than NPR (to say nothing of making the bestsellers list)? It seems, at least for the foreseeable future, that Americans will have a relationship with poetry akin to the one Collins describes between his salt and pepper shakers: “I wondered if they had become friends/ after all these years/ or if they were still strangers to one another/ like you and I/ who manage to be known and unknown/ to each other at the same time—/ me at this table with a bowl of pears,/ you leaning in a doorway somewhere/ near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.”

That’s all for this week (and this quarter). If you have any TV shows, movies, video games, books, music, or really any artwork that you feel hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves, send me an e-mail at bmw940@uchicago.edu. Any samples you might have on hand make my job easier but certainly aren’t necessary.