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The Trouble With Poetry
January 12, 2006 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you
NYTimes (reg. req'd)
posted by found missing (145 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's a cheap tactic: this isn't so much a poem as it is a standard book review that's been italicized and broken into three-line stanzas. This is just pseudo-cleverness.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:35 PM on January 12, 2006


Dr. Wu, have you read much Billy Collins? I think you missed Orr's parody and point (which is spot-on).

I agree with most of this essay on Collins. The guy is a complete joke.
posted by bardic at 8:38 PM on January 12, 2006


My thoughts exactly, Dr. Wu.
posted by wigu at 8:38 PM on January 12, 2006


Dr. Wu, have you read Collins poetry? The review is a pitch-perfect parody of Collins and a serious review at the same time. I love Collins, but Orr nails him here.

Thanks for the link.
posted by LarryC at 8:39 PM on January 12, 2006


Nope, never read or even heard of Collins.
I mean, I got the point of the review, but I didn't think it was particularly clever. But perhaps I need to be more familiar with the poet in order to get it. Fair enough.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2006


Dr. Wu gets taken to school.

Best of web.
posted by deadfather at 8:47 PM on January 12, 2006


Yeah, that's kind of how parody works.

Did the end of the Orr poem remind anyone else of the early version of Marianne Moore's "Poetry" ("imaginary gardens with real toads," IIRC)?
posted by bardic at 8:49 PM on January 12, 2006


Dr. Wu is playing games with you and luring you in. Watch it.
posted by null terminated at 8:51 PM on January 12, 2006


I heard that Billy Collins is the ONE poet in the USA who makes his living through writing poetry. (Most teach, obviously.) I don't know if this is true or not. But his poetry is so lacking in the traditional virtues of poetry (ambuguity/depth, especially), that this is pretty sad.
posted by kozad at 8:52 PM on January 12, 2006


Poetry can
Now be achieved
By anyone
Simply by using

The enter key
posted by Citizen Premier at 8:54 PM on January 12, 2006


Dr. Wu is playing games with you and luring you in. Watch it.

null terminated: Shhh! I don't want anyone to know that I am actually Billy Collins, and that I'm just playing a really clever postmodern game with my audience.

Or am I?
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:55 PM on January 12, 2006


All right, this 'poetry' thing has gone entirely too far.

Everybody back to the 'Faerie Queene'. Let's begin again.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on January 12, 2006


He sells a lot of books, but only because he was deft at playing the academic poetry game--kissing up to the right people and winning awards from them, turning around and giving them the awards. He'll still take a university's money if they want him there for a semester.

(If it isn't clear, I'm a big fan of Jed Rasula's expose of the current American poetry scene, post 1945, in The American Poetry Wax Museum. It's a book that both killed and re-invigorated my interest in good poetry, if that makes any sense).
posted by bardic at 8:59 PM on January 12, 2006


(And good enjambment is harder than it looks. Just as WC Williams).
posted by bardic at 8:59 PM on January 12, 2006


He sells a lot of books

But also because he talks 'the language of the people'. His whole schtick is how accessible his poetry is.
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on January 12, 2006


Excuse me, Dr. Wu,
but I think that is the point,
for what are Billy Collins' poems

but tired, timid, self-congratulatory
workshop-stinky, bloodless
not-really and never-was poetry

only recognizable as such
for being in a poem-like format
of broken lines and haphazard pauses?

(On preview: I am truly sorry,
but I think you got pwned. If it's any consolation,
you deserve it less than Billy Effing Collins.)
posted by melissa may at 9:00 PM on January 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


*snap*
*snap*
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on January 12, 2006


Only Billy Collins could think that clever, therefore you are in fact he.
posted by mek at 9:01 PM on January 12, 2006


Unwilling and
Not able
To commit to BugMeNot,
Quit this endeavor,
And "never"
Was much like
Naught.
posted by snsranch at 9:08 PM on January 12, 2006


I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you


grateful
posted by pyramid termite at 9:09 PM on January 12, 2006


OK, I can admit that I have been pwned. But, in a way, I'm sort of glad about it, because if that's what Collins's poetry is like, it fucking sucks, and I'm delighted that I didn't "get it." I am so goddamn sick of non-creative irony of this type. It's so hollow. And, of course, the poet would probably respond, "Of course it's hollow. That's the point." Which is the problem with most garden-variety postmodernism: it thinks it's being clever by waffling between real and "real," but in fact it's being stupid.

Anyone have a link to Collins's actual poems? I'd like to see if they suck as much as I figure they do.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:09 PM on January 12, 2006


That's mint.
posted by bunglin jones at 9:10 PM on January 12, 2006


I'd like to see if they suck as much as I figure they do.

Oh, they do.

The thing is, he doesn't get ironic at all. So I think the review is just a straight parody, meant to imitate and thus expose Collins' lack of skill.
posted by Miko at 9:15 PM on January 12, 2006


linky and linky

i read two ... that's enough i think
posted by pyramid termite at 9:15 PM on January 12, 2006


As I reread some of these, one thing I notice is the utterly deadening soporific rhythm that continues without relief until the last line.

Good Lord! He's just putting people in a damn trance. That's how he got to be poet laureate.

He may be to poetry what Applebee's is to food.
posted by Miko at 9:18 PM on January 12, 2006


Billy Collins poems at Poemhunter.com. I like him, especially this one and this one.

(Metafilter is a tough crowd.)
posted by LarryC at 9:22 PM on January 12, 2006


OK, so I read a few. I do think they suck. They sort of play like Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts," only non-pithy.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:31 PM on January 12, 2006


Yes, I'm harsh on him. Sorry 'bout that, LarryC.

It's a funny thing for this review to pop up now. I never had a strong opinion about him before -- just thought 'hey, he's raising the profile of poetry, he's getting Americans interested again, great'.

But just last weekend I heard him on Prairie Home Companion and started to think: maybe this poet is overrated.
posted by Miko at 9:31 PM on January 12, 2006


Yeah, plus that Emily Dickinson one? Where he talks about nineteenth-century undergarments being complex? They weren't. Not by a long shot. Drawstring drawers, chemise that you put on like a nightgown - not a weird fastening to be found anywhere. Corset -- a row of hooks and eyes in the front, that's all, maybe 12-20 of them, and they pop right open. You don't even mess with the stays or lacings -- the stays are sewn in, and you lace the corset once and then only tighten it each day (like shoes). You don't undo the laces.

So undressing a woman in Emily's time was nothing like as complicated as it became by, say, 1949. Do some research!
posted by Miko at 9:34 PM on January 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


i'm forced to conclude from larry c's poems that billy collins lives in his head and it's not that interesting a place to be
posted by pyramid termite at 9:35 PM on January 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite; you're wrong. Go pick up a book of Collins' work. I'm with LarryC; I like Collins a lot but can recognize a good poke when I see one. Orr does nail a decent sharp criticism; that last line cuts sharply. Still, Collins can take it. There's something so fundamentally friendly about his work that it's difficult to stay cynical about it for long. And for what it's worth, I've had plenty of deeply felt - yes, even hurting - moments while reading Collins. He can make you ache pretty hard if you open yourself up to him.

Of course, if your idea of poetry runs to the more grad school academic rather than the accessible to most of humanity, I can understand why you'd find Collins' work and career particularly galling.

/uncynical unbastard
posted by mediareport at 9:43 PM on January 12, 2006


Oh, and Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes (which LarryC linked just above) is a smart, funny, knowing little poem that helped get me back into poetry after years away.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on January 12, 2006


if your idea of poetry runs to the more grad school academic

*Ahem* This is precisely why his poetry is so bad--it's workshop drivel, based around the interior life of a man who hasn't really done anything remarkable enough to write about. So he writes about his middle-class ennui. It's pathetic, and the man wouldn't know what a chance looked like if it bit him in the rear.

The "workshop poem" is the current mode of academic American poetry. Collins, to my utter disbelief, managed to dumb down an already pretty transparent form (1. Establish situation 2. Throw in some observational images 3. Relate them to an "authentic" moment of suffering and/or joy 4. Arrive at resolution, preferably as it relates to an image taken from either nature or a domestic, suburban scene 5. End with one or two lines presenting potential ambiguity of said resolution) to sell books. He's a hack, and it's a shame that people waste time on him when there are much better contemporary poets who never learned to play the award/small-University press/grant game as well.

Ahem. I really can't stand him and what he stands for. There's a reason why most significant poetry today is not being written or read by Americans--he's a small but serious part of that problem.

Then again, degustibus yaddayadda.
posted by bardic at 9:56 PM on January 12, 2006


Uh-huh, Miko. Plus, you know, keep your rhetorical hands off any poet who is so much more brilliant than you that if you undressed her she would blind you like the sun.

Instead, take off your own rhetorical clothes and lay down in front of her and try to learn just a little about mystery, metaphor, language, and accurate observation. Don't steal her language under the guise of praising her. Don't elevate yourself while presumably elevating her. Don't force the reader to pretend you occupy the same plane of human genius, even with a dash of wry. There's not enough wryness on the planet to wash that horsepill down.

mediareport, who I like (as I do LarryC and Dr. Wu, snark aside) open-heartedness is a quality I highly respect and aspire to, but I don't want friendship from poetry. I want my ass kicked, my eyes dazzled, my heart battered. I want the sharp rocks. Billy Collins the man I don't know and will assume he is as goodhearted a soul as ever lived. Billy Collins the poet is an emblem for every last thing I hate about modern American poetry: the friendly, smiling, godawful blandness.
posted by melissa may at 9:59 PM on January 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


There's something so fundamentally friendly about his work

if i want something fundamentally friendly to have in my lap, i'll get a dog, not a book of poetry

since when does one have to be cynical not to like something? ... the problem i had with the emily dickinson poem and the remembering time poem is that he treats emily like an object and times past as things to just shallowly imagine about ... there's no emotion there, just conceit

if there are better poems of his, you're welcome to link to them
posted by pyramid termite at 10:15 PM on January 12, 2006


You people gargle with hydrochloric acid and chew on razor blades! No, seriously, I am enjoying the conversation here. OK, what contemporary poets should I be reading? Time to throw down!
posted by LarryC at 10:21 PM on January 12, 2006


but I don't want friendship from poetry. I want my ass kicked, my eyes dazzled, my heart battered. I want the sharp rocks.

Well said.
posted by Jawn at 10:28 PM on January 12, 2006


Don't steal her language under the guise of praising her.
melissa may: I think this is a particularly astute condensation of what's wrong with the type of poetry that Collins seems to emblematize. (Big ol' caveat: I'd never even heard of the man before this thread, and have not actively sought out any poetry -- unless you count song lyrics -- since college.)

What I mean, in singling out this sentence, is that you get at a kind of fundamental problem with "postmodern" (or whatever you want to call it) art: the copycatting and name-checking that has come to replace knowledge and virtuosity (if not skill). My initial comment referred to the pseudo-cleverness of the NYT review; upon realizing my pwnage, I wish now to say that I find the handful of Collins poems that I have read to be the works of pseudo-cleverness; the NYT review, on its own merits, is a semi-decent piece of satire (though I still don't think it's as clever as all that).

I'd also like to say that I think it's pretty great that Metafilter (and found missing) have provided the space for an intelligent discussion about poetry.

And I like you, too!
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:29 PM on January 12, 2006


probably your best bet is to get a recent anthology of contemporary poetry and follow up on the ones you like ... it's not about following arbiters of taste, but about exploring for yourself

i don't keep up with it that much and much of what i read is older stuff ... i just go by feel and sound

just because billy collins doesn't do anything for me doesn't mean you're "wrong" to read and like him ...
posted by pyramid termite at 10:35 PM on January 12, 2006


Please read from sheets: I am sofa king...
posted by wfrgms at 10:43 PM on January 12, 2006


LarryC, I am a fan of Li-Young Lee. See, I'm not so tough.

I also like Yusef Komunyakaa quite a bit. And more, really, but I am sleepy.

And for sheer empahasis, I really, really like Dr. Wu. Woo woo woo!
posted by melissa may at 10:44 PM on January 12, 2006


Bardic, you are my hero.

After having to read and analyse "This Much I Do Remember" in class, I can think of no poet I dislike more than Collins.
posted by nonmerci at 10:53 PM on January 12, 2006


yes, melissa may, that's much better ... thank you
posted by pyramid termite at 11:02 PM on January 12, 2006


Lee and Komunyakaa are great. DC Berman has only published one book, but it's awesome--Actual Air (and he's pretty much the mastermind behind Silver Jews, a great band). August Kleinzahler is a favorite of mine--he has a selected volume called Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club, which is great.

Susan Howe writes interestingly about Dickinson, but she's not for everyone--lots of typograhic play and use of images.

Charles Simic--he takes on similar subjects as Collins i.e. sitting around and doing nothing, but is a lot more masterful in using language and image.

The Norton 3rd ed. of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry ed. Ramazani has all of these folks, and a lot more (small plug: I was a footnote and permissions drone on this. No royalties for me, unfortunately).
posted by bardic at 11:02 PM on January 12, 2006


Your favorite poet sucks.

I like Collins, and find most of the arguments here pretty shallow. Especially criticizing him for writing "based around the interior life of a man who hasn't really done anything remarkable enough to write about." I guess most MeFites had better close down our accounts, huh? A simple life isn't worthy of introspection or sharing? This is especially precious criticism coming as it does in the middle of the classic Dickinson love fest that follows. 'Cause, you know, she was such a wild woman.

We get that you don't think his work is important, but to call him "a bad poet" because he fills a niche you happen to dislike is even more shallow as literary criticism than what you accuse him of as a poet. As for the five steps bardic lists - they could be applied to almost any poet with a story to tell.

Collins is certainly not my favorite poet, nor would I want all poets to attempt to write like him, but having more than a passing familiarity with the body of his work, I can say that I see far more bad poetry written today in the name of POETRY, than in his modest style. I only wish the majority of workshopped poems approached his spare, direct language and clarity of thought.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:09 PM on January 12, 2006


Did the end of the Orr poem remind anyone else of the early version of Marianne Moore's "Poetry" ("imaginary gardens with real toads," IIRC)?

Yes indeed. Deliberately, I'm sure. Now that I've gone back and read her poem, she's even more direct than Orr in demanding rawness enhanced by genius.

Incidentally that "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" is in quotation marks in the original, as is another phrase ("'business documents and school-books'"). I wonder who she's quoting?
posted by mono blanco at 11:11 PM on January 12, 2006


These poems sound like
Japanese haiku, except
they're not.

posted by spacewrench at 11:19 PM on January 12, 2006


mono blanco: I'm pretty sure it's from a Yeats letter--but my copy is too far away right now.

It's Raining: I'll cop to having a bit of an unhealthy obssesion with Collins and his mediocrity, but I'd again suggest Simic or Ashbery when it comes to "sitting around and observing things." Other poets do it much better and without cliches. I just find Collins to be full of them. Then again, I've gone on record defending Jewel's poetry as a possible gateway drug into better stuff. And the five-point thing isn't mine--the fact that you recognize those things as what constitutes a poem these days is indicative of a real staleness and conformity in a lot of contemporary American stuff.

Perhaps my favorite "sitting around" poem, "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating" by Wallace Stevens:

The garden flew round with the angel,
The angel flew round with the clouds,
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds.
Is there any secret in skulls,
The cattle skulls in the woods?
Do the drummers in black hoods
Rumble anything out of their drums?
Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby
Might well have been German or Spanish,
Yet that things go round and again go round
Has rather a classical sound.
posted by bardic at 11:26 PM on January 12, 2006


It's weird though, the "review" poem, by Orr dosn't sound like a poem, but the actual, self-refrential poem included actualy does.
posted by delmoi at 11:35 PM on January 12, 2006


And were it not so late, I could fill the next several days with examples of poetry I like better than Collins, too - although I could also probably throw in a few lesser known Collins pieces and surprise you.

My main point is, saying that Collins is not this thing you like better or that thing you like better is not really a legitimate criticism of what he does. It's a bit like criticizing Eminem for not being Mozart.

Actually - I like the Jack Handy comparison, Dr. Wu made. Except, I like Jack Handy, and I don't think the existence of Wallace Stevens means there's no room in the world of poetry for Jack Handy.

Anyway - it's late. I may come back tomorrow if there's still interest.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:42 PM on January 12, 2006


For the last time, people: Even if something is "supposed" to be bad, it's still bad. See also: last 20 minutes of the movie Adaptation.
posted by speicus at 11:49 PM on January 12, 2006


The Problem of Describing Trees

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from dying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Aspens doing something in the wind.
posted by raaka at 11:50 PM on January 12, 2006


a deserved roast of a lukewarm poet! when ashbery dies who will we plume ourselves with?
posted by ori at 11:57 PM on January 12, 2006


Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

-Billy Collins

*seems appropriate tonight*
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:26 AM on January 13, 2006


Damn - I can't sleep tonight. Maybe one more quick comment:

melissa may - I'm a big fan of yours, but I had to laugh at the delicious irony of your reaction to "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes." You do realize that the entire point of Collins' poem is precisely to celebrate Dickinson by taking her off the pedestal she has been condemned to and letting her be human, again? To celebrate a glimpse of the genius sans mythology? I highly doubt you'd find anyone quicker to say she's out of his league than Collins.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:57 AM on January 13, 2006


All I want from poetry is authenticity, just as I want from all art. But there's very little of it.

Dr. Wu, your insistent attempts to blame postmodernism for Collins, American poetry, and tooth decay seem misplaced. It's guilty of numerous crimes, but Collins isn't one of them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:50 AM on January 13, 2006


take a
poem
any
poem

(close my eyes)
mmmm
an ace
of collins?

yeah
i know
they're all
the same

but
put that
wet spaghetti
noodle

away
there's no
reason to
kill it
posted by pyramid termite at 2:01 AM on January 13, 2006


After reviewing this thread, I am glad that I am in engineering and not liberal arts at university.
posted by mr.dan at 2:05 AM on January 13, 2006


I'm reminded of an experiment done by Stanley Fish in a classroom where he took a newspaper article and wrote it up on the blackboard, placing suitable line breaks in it, and told the students to analyze the poem. Not one students questioned whether it really was a poem, but dutifully attempted to analyze it as such.
posted by Tarn at 2:31 AM on January 13, 2006


The trouble with poets is they talk too much.
posted by EarBucket at 2:46 AM on January 13, 2006


I had never heard of Billy Collins until right now. My first reaction is that he is the poetic example of the general trend of children's culture made with adults in mind. I can see myself reading his poetry with my nieces and nephews and having a pretty good time.

As for the people intimating poetry is too obscure and inaccessible, what is poetry for? If you accept that its value might reside in its ability to offer something different to perception then can it be readily accessible or would we necessarily have to work for it a little?

I look to poetry for kinds of re-enchantment and I don't find that can happen when poets are being banal and cute. After reading Collins' poetry I feel much the same as I do after hearing a decent joke and that's fine. I accept that there is room for more than one kind of poetry out there but don't I also get to criticize, as superficial and irrelevant, that which offers little more than a passing amusement.

...votes here for Adrienne Rich and J.H. Prynne
posted by anglophiliated at 2:55 AM on January 13, 2006


So much to say...

There's been much talk about the lack of depth in Collins' work. I don't think that poetry has to be deep. In fact, I think that a lot of poets get away with some truly excruciating writing because they hide it in, and explain it away as some deep intellectual stuff that "you're not going to like, because you're too stupid."

This deliberate ambiguity is the reason that professors can stick newspaper articles with randomly placed line breaks and get away with it.

It's harder to write a good poem which can be understood than it is to write one that cannot. Collins' deserves credit for trying.

Also, poetry has never been popular. People have been moaning about the death of poetry for 200, 400, 600 years +. It's not dying, it was just never that alive.

Finally, if you think the American poetry scene is dead, you should try kicking round the insides of the British poetry scene.

On the topic of great poets. I'm still obsessed with Kim Adonnizio, especially Night of the living, Night of the dead."
posted by seanyboy at 3:58 AM on January 13, 2006


It's harder to write a good poem which can be understood than it is to write one that cannot. Collins' deserves credit for trying.

Indeed. Plus, Orr's review of Collins' new book is not really a very good or helpful review of the book -- it is not "spot on." Orr misses the underlying obession with death in the book -- it's clear Collins has been contemplating his own mortality of late, since there are nearly a dozen poems that deal with that subject, and very well too, I might add. I read "The Trouble With Poetry" and came away from the book saddened and sober.

My criterion for "good" poetry is that it makes my heart beat faster when I'm reading. Collins has done that for me on numerous occasions.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:16 AM on January 13, 2006


I was reading this
Last night
At 11:19

The very moment
you posted
posted by R. Mutt at 4:36 AM on January 13, 2006


They sort of play like Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts," only non-pithy.

This is the best succinct description of Billy Collins and why I can't stand him that I've ever read. Kudos, Dr. Wu.

Look, poetry doesn't have to be "deep" and it doesn't have to be friendly and it doesn't have to break new ground and it doesn't have to incorporate knowing allusions to the entire history of poetic discourse. What it does have to do is use language in a way that makes you sit up and take notice, to be a self-contained "machine made of words." If it sounds like prose chopped up into random lines, it's not a poem, it's prose chopped up into lines. This is the case with much (most?) modern American poetry; Billy C. is just the best-paid example. As Tom Leonard (one of my favorite contemporary poets) puts it:

poetry is all the juicy bits in the juiciest order...

prose goes scchhpludd
prose goes scchhpludd scchhpludd clomp clomp clomp

posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on January 13, 2006


I've always liked Collins' poetry in a lukewarm sort of way. I've understood him to be a part of a direct American style intent on presenting day to day events in order to search out the feeling in the moments that risk going unnoticed although they make up the bulk of our lives. William Carlos Williams, and some of Robert Frost, seem to me to be part of that line.

Collins is certainly no Celan, no Holderlin, no Jabes, no Bachmann, but I never insist that Cyndi Lauper be Bob Dylan either. I love them both.
posted by OmieWise at 5:55 AM on January 13, 2006


Oh, but, you know, this is a great great post. It warms my heart to see over 60 comments in a thread about poetry, some discussion, some argument, good snark, a couple of suggestions I'll follow up...all about poetry.
posted by OmieWise at 5:58 AM on January 13, 2006


So much depends
upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.


We need more poems like that these days. The rest of this crap might as well be sold next to the Self-Help aisle in B&N.
posted by spicynuts at 5:58 AM on January 13, 2006


Don't snark too loudly about the "Self-Help" thing--they might hear you, see?

Honestly, that's a huge market for poetry in America--some would call it the "Chicken Soupizaztion" of poetry, but that stuff sells more than any "serious" poetry does.

I'd go further and argue that the whole post-WWII post-Confessional workshop mode (my own phrase, but if you read a Collins poem or most of the poetry in The New Yorker, you get the gist) has a lot to do with it. It can be done well or poorly (or lukewarmly in Collins' case), but formally I don't find the schlock to be all that different than the supposedly "true art" stuff. Both are based around the idea that a poem, unlike a good novel or play, is something one turns to to find a sort of affirmation, in the weakest sense of the term. Again, I can' recommend Jed Rasula enough--although Wax Museum is probably too long, just a chapter shows how pre-programmed much "authentic" American poetry has become, and how the most "natural" expressions are completely contrived and predictable.

More stuff I like: Electronic Poetry Center (site looks like crap, but has great stuff, especially for experimental work)
posted by bardic at 6:13 AM on January 13, 2006


Ah, poetry, the Mao of letters
scapegoat of the uninitiated.
Shipyard workers and tech supporters alike
wallow in their rejection:

"Poems? We don't need no stinking poems!"

(Oh Brad, tell us that Shania story again.)

And their Haphazard Capitalization and their utter lack of it (how i hate it) and their long, meandering lines
and short ones
i damn them all to hell.

And their free form,
Or meticulous sonnets
And the bees in their bonnets
Their adherence to norm.

Their refusal to rhyme
Or their wishing they would
Their insisting they're good
Don't deserve my dear time.

In me, words are glowing
Whole movies they whistle
The filthy, the unseen, the true.

Well, rest then in knowing:
Despite your dismissal
Poetry doesn't need you.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:19 AM on January 13, 2006


A Bird came down the Walk --
He did not know I saw --
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass --
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass --

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around --
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought --
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home --

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam --
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, splashless as they swim.

-- Emily Dickenson (and so much fucking better than Collins; that last stanza curves asyptotically upward)

I don't really hate Collins, but he's so steadfastly quiet, and that only works if you do it perfectly. One cliche or clumsy phrasing and everything comes to a grinding halt.

Now that I think about it, Collins's stuff could probably be improved with strategically placed "fucking"s. That said, I like This one. Quiet works best when it's a little sad, not trying to be funny.
posted by Tlogmer at 6:25 AM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]


(Disclaimer: I read very little poetry and understand less.)
posted by Tlogmer at 6:28 AM on January 13, 2006


In the end, what we need
from a poet with Collins's talent
is not a good-natured wave

from writer to reader,
or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;
what we need is to be drawn

high into the poem's cloud-filled air
and allowed to fall
on rocks real enough to hurt.


That's one of the stupidest reviews
I've ever read in my life.
As an earlier poster said,

there's a good lot
more horrible poetry
written in the name of POETRY!

with a capital P
than there is in Collins'
soft and unassuming style.

This thread strikes me as another case of genre-wankers angry that the arbitrary constraints they use to define 'legitimacy' are being stepped around -- and that a lot of people like the results.

Go back to bitching about Jimmy Eats World selling out, mmkay?
posted by verb at 6:29 AM on January 13, 2006


I've understood him to be a part of a direct American style intent on presenting day to day events in order to search out the feeling in the moments that risk going unnoticed although they make up the bulk of our lives. William Carlos Williams, and some of Robert Frost, seem to me to be part of that line.

But that "line" has nothing to do with poetry. Poetry isn't about "day to day events," it's about words. WCW and Frost are in different universes poetically (have you ever seen a poem by one that could be mistaken for the other?), but both use language magnificently; Collins just babbles on in a genial unthreatening way.

Some previous PoetryFilter threads: Yeats, Heaney, Bunting, sonnets. In the last of them, I quote one of my favorite poems-on-poetry, Kenneth Koch's "Fresh Air":
Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?
Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot
of the baleful influence
(Is Eliot a great poet? no one knows), Hardy, Stevens, Williams (is
Hardy of our time?),
Hopkins (is Hopkins of our time?), Rilke (is Rilke of our time?),
Lorca (is Lorca of our time?), who is still of our time?
Mallarmé, Valery, Apollinaire, Eluard, Reverdy, French poets are
still of our time,
Pasternak and Mayakovsky, is Jouve of our time?...

Summer in the trees! "It is time to strangle several bad poets."
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]


@bardic--thanks for recommending the Rasula book. It looks like a long read, but an interesting one.
posted by Prospero at 6:41 AM on January 13, 2006


Do Not Worry

Seminal emmissions at night are natural
Most healthy older boys have them.

Unless emissions occur very frequently,
No attention need be given to them.

via MeCha
posted by theora55 at 6:45 AM on January 13, 2006


I'm reminded of an experiment done by Stanley Fish in a classroom where he took a newspaper article and wrote it up on the blackboard, placing suitable line breaks in it, and told the students to analyze the poem. Not one students questioned whether it really was a poem, but dutifully attempted to analyze it as such.

He's a regular Marcel Duchamp, that Stanley Fish.

Part of the problem with a lot of the criticism against Collins is that it relies on a prescriptive view of poetry -- poems must be this-and-such kind of writing, and then, too, there's the inevitiable snobbery of the folks who think the poems they prefer are somehow better than Collins' poetry merely because they themselves prefer them.
Then, too, there's the fact that Collins is heavily influenced by various older schools of Asian poetry -- the tone and attitude in his poems is, as an earlier poster noted, akin to the tone of haiku. The rhetorical goals of so-called "experiemental" poetry and the rhetorical goals of much of Collins' poems are different enough that it's fair to say that people who like one will generally not like the other. But this alone is not enough to justify any claims that one is "better" than the other in any objective sense.
A lot of the complaints about Collins also reveal a seeming lack of knowledge about the history of poetry -- it is mostly fans of very recent poetry that seem to dislike Collins; the furthest back I've seen a comparison go is to Wallace Stevens, who wasn't above writing the kind of quiet observations Collins sometimes writes.
And, then, there's the fact that Collins is past his prime -- his best work was done a decade ago, and this current book is not as good as Picnic, Lightning, or Questions About Angels.

Personally, I can't stand "experiemntal" poetry -- I find it snobbish, self-involved, arrogant, and ugly. I have a hard time seeing the appeal of Anne Carson or Charles Bernstein, for example, but a lot of grad student intellectual types dig them. So they're doing something for somebody.

So, Collins isn't for everyone. Liking or not liking his poems doens't mean you're more moral, or have better taste or are smarter -- it just means you don't like his poetry. Your reasons probably have much more to do with the fickleness of taste and fashion than you want to admit.

As for the charge of Collins poems not being "deep" -- I call bullshit. I'd like to see Collins' detractors be a little more academic and scientific about it -- try analyzing a Collins poem with the intent of disproving your own hyopthesis (that Collins is n ot deep) and see what happens. Collins is deep, but ironically, because he's using everyday language and ppaying attention to issues like clarity and music, you actually have to work a little to get at the depth. Anybody can write an obscure, abstract poem with disjointed images and inaccsessible grammer and have it be seen as deep -- it's much harder to write a clean, musical poem that is readable by a person of ordinary intelligence that also contains more meaning for those who care in investigate further. The problem, in short, with Collins poems might very well be bad or lazy reading rarther than bad writing.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:47 AM on January 13, 2006


He should go back to singing with Smashing Pumpkins. Oh, wait, wrong Poet Billy...
posted by twsf at 6:48 AM on January 13, 2006


Well, poetry is about a lot of things, as well as being about language. Of course you're correct when you say that poetry is about words and how you use them, that it's self-referential in that particular way. Collins may well fail at that (my own liking for him has always been present but tepid), but that doesn't mean that he doesn't belong to a school of American poetry whose subject matter has to do with the mundane.
posted by OmieWise at 6:49 AM on January 13, 2006


Oh, wait, wrong Poet Billy...

Well, I think this:
And the embers never fade
In your city by the lake
The place where you were born

Believe

In the resolute urgency of now
And if you believe there's not a chance
We'll crucify the insincere tonight
is poetry, too. A 'different' kind of poetry from *poetry*, but poetry nevertheless. Unlike the preceding sentence.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:56 AM on January 13, 2006


Part of the problem with a lot of the criticism against Collins is that it relies on a prescriptive view of poetry -- poems must be this-and-such kind of writing

Just so! I recall the first day of an art appreciation class at a junior college, two decades ago. The bright young spark (an adjuncting grad student from Yale, we whispered reverently) made the pronouncement that the purpose of art is to challenge our assumptions.

Man, that pronouncement screwed me up for years, had me defending works I did not really like and pretending to like works I did not understand.

Collins is not Emily Dickinson, but he is a talented and amusing fellow. But I do look forward to checking out some of the other poets recommended here.

Thanks all for the best thread in ages.
posted by LarryC at 7:08 AM on January 13, 2006


People have been moaning about the death of poetry for 200, 400, 600 years +. It's not dying, it was just never that alive.

Well, you could make a good argument that, at least for the middle classes, poetry was very much alive throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One could have a career as a poet (no one really can today), and no educated person would comfortably admit to not being familiar with the poetic canon of the day or with classical poetry. The culture supported a knowledge of poetics in a much better way than it does now. We're lucky if, by the end of high school, we've read about the city of the big shoulders and the fog coming on little cat feet, some Frost (Mending Wall, etc), Dickinson (Because I Could Not Stop for Death), a little Shakespeare, and the red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens. What an educated, middle-class American knows of poetry today is meagre in comparison to what a similar person would have known in 1880 or 1930. There's not a great deal of poetic literacy in contemporary American culture.

I can't offer recommendations to many contemporary poets, because I've given up on reading it (and most contemporary fiction, too). I try not to be closed-minded; I read what people recommend and am always ready to give a positive evaluation to what I think is a great work, regardless of whether it's contemporary or not. But my general dislike of the place poetry has taken in today's world is a lot of the reason I don't like Collins. He's symptomatic of what our idea of 'poetry' has become.

Now, I don't think it's bad to like him; I just find him unrewarding. I don't ever find his words echoing in my brain unbidden.

Today, people learn to become poets by first reading works in school that are relatively unchallenging, or at least taught that way. If they want to pursue poetry, they enter the land of readings, slams, and workshops, where they're rewarded for exhibiting a certain set of stylistic conventions. It's possible to call yourself a poet, even to become a known poet, without ever reading in the history of poetry and seeking a deep understanding of the form. I feel that today's poets use language comfortably --as the estimable languagehat says, more as if it were prose -- because they have not spent a great deal of time wrestling an ineffable idea into the shape of a sestina, for instance. Spending time in the coffeehouses and workshops results in a different kind of poetry than spending time in the trenches of working in structured forms and reading reams of great poetry, painstakingly dissecting the tiny machinery that makes a poem work.

Hearing a lot of poetry of Collins' kind has changed our tastes for poetry. I can't help but wonder what kind of response Yeats would get for reading "The Second Coming" at a Barnes and Noble, you know?

All the Collins supporters are correct in that it's not a bad thing that folks are picking up books of poetry and reading them, rather than doing whatever else they might do with their time. But it's just a small corner of the world of poetry. I would hope that people who like the experience of reading his work would read widely in poetry, contemporary as well as older works. Collins would fall into perspective then. Not bad, but I don't think we'll be teaching him in 50 years.

I still prefer my Moderns, Transcendentalists, and Romantics. It would be great to put some of those folks in a rap battle with MC BC.
posted by Miko at 7:09 AM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]


melissa may: I don't want friendship from poetry

You seem to have missed the part where I noted that Collins' poetry has indeed moved me on numberous occasions. As others have pointed out, there are "sharp rocks" there for some of us who aren't put off by the gentle approach Collins takes to the relationship between poet and reader.

languagehat: Collins just babbles on in a genial unthreatening way.

You don't see any skill in the way Collins crafts his poems? Wow. Just wow.

Anyway, I definitely like this guy's gentle approach (although it's far from the only poetry I like), but that doesn't mean there's nothing of substance - strong emotion, sharp rocks or whatever you want to call it - to be found in Collins' work. But yeah, de gustibus.
posted by mediareport at 7:09 AM on January 13, 2006


Collins is deep, but ironically, because he's using everyday language and ppaying attention to issues like clarity and music, you actually have to work a little to get at the depth. Anybody can write an obscure, abstract poem with disjointed images and inaccsessible grammer and have it be seen as deep -- it's much harder to write a clean, musical poem that is readable by a person of ordinary intelligence that also contains more meaning for those who care in investigate further.

Just wanted to see that again.
posted by mediareport at 7:14 AM on January 13, 2006


I am sorry to say
that somebody quoted
William Carlos Williams
in a Metafilter thread
on poetry.

It was inevitable
really, it was always
going to happen.
posted by seanyboy at 7:18 AM on January 13, 2006


I don't even think the harshest part of the review was the "sharp rocks" comment. I think it was"

the problem with his work
is not that it is disrespectful,
but that it is not disrespectful enough;

it never cracks wise
to the teacher's face,
but meekly returns to its desk,

lending itself with disappointing ease
to the stale imagery
of teachers, desks and wisecracking.


it is mostly fans of very recent poetry that seem to dislike Collins;

eustacescrubb, I have to disagree on that. I dislike Collins because I also dislike most recent poetry.

Although I think what you have to say about the influence of the poetry of Asia is interesting. The differing rhetorical goals, etc. It brings up the question: so is Collins' work toward melding of Eastern expressionism with Western poetic themes working well?
posted by Miko at 7:18 AM on January 13, 2006


I hate poems
about poetry. Writing
about writing

is like fingering
your asshole.
It may feel good

but is impolite to
show to strangers.
Even in
McSweeney's.
posted by klangklangston at 7:20 AM on January 13, 2006 [2 favorites]


One could have a career as a poet
It has never been possible to have a career as a poet.
Sorry, but in all but a tiny minority of cases, it's never happened.

The only way to become a poet
with a small fortune
is to start
as a poet
with a large fortune.
posted by seanyboy at 7:20 AM on January 13, 2006


It has never been possible to have a career as a poet.
Sorry, but in all but a tiny minority of cases, it's never happened.


That's entirely false.
posted by Miko at 7:22 AM on January 13, 2006


so is Collins' work toward melding of Eastern expressionism with Western poetic themes working well?

Sometimes, sometimes not, I'd say.

it's far from the only poetry I like

I forgot to second the reccomendations for Li Young Lee and Yusef Komanyakaa from above. My taste is poetry runs the gamut from Dante and Milton to Ginsberg to Audre Lorde to David Berman. Poetry = good.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:27 AM on January 13, 2006


Let me add to that; it was too rude.

I'm not talking exclusively about the greats. I'm including hacks. Along with the periodicals boom during the years 1850-1900 or so came a huge opportunity for people who were interested in writing poetry to crank out and sell voluminous amounts of doggerel. And they did. No children's magazine, newspaper, women's magazine, annual, current-affairs magazine, or humor magazine went without a hefty dose of poetry in each issue. Many writers supported themselves by working in poetry, often along with other forms such as journalism, songwriting, and the short story.

In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the entire chapter about Emmeline Grangerford parodies one such type of pop poetry, 1840s Gothic bereavement poetry. People who worked in words made money publishing poetry. The market for it was enormous.

I'm not saying that it was better poetry than what gets into the New Yorker today. Most wasn't. Just that there was a lot more of it, so ordinary people were more aware of and accustomed to poetry in daily life.
posted by Miko at 7:30 AM on January 13, 2006


A lot of the complaints about Collins also reveal a seeming lack of knowledge about the history of poetry -- it is mostly fans of very recent poetry that seem to dislike Collins

What a silly thing to say. My "fandom" starts with Homer, Sappho, and Archilochus and proceeds down through the troubadours and Elizabethans to the usual suspects from the 19th century and the great Russian and American modernists of the early 20th. Like Miko, I don't read a lot of contemporary stuff; there's just too much chaff, and life is short. And who cares whether Collins is "deep" (whatever that means)? He doesn't use words in the way that genuine poets use words. If you can't see that, I can't help you.

You don't see any skill in the way Collins crafts his poems?

Sure. They're brilliantly crafted; that's why he's so popular and so rich (for a poet). It's just that they're not crafted as poems, they're crafted as comforting little pseudo-poems calculated to make Garrison Keillor melt and want to read them in his resonant baritone. There's nothing wrong with that, and I don't begrudge the man his success—he's good at what he does. But to call him a good poet is to misuse words.
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on January 13, 2006


they're not crafted as poems, they're crafted as comforting little pseudo-poems calculated to make Garrison Keillor melt and want to read them in his resonant baritone... he's good at what he does. But to call him a good poet is to misuse words.

I value languagehat's comments in many threads and think his nick is the best in a while. But this smacks of 'No True Scotsman' arrogance. Is there some sort of 'You Must Be This Obscure To Enter' line scratched on the doorpost of legitimacy?
posted by verb at 7:45 AM on January 13, 2006


He doesn't use words in the way that genuine poets use words.

Supersilly-esness.
posted by found missing at 7:51 AM on January 13, 2006


I am sorry to say
that somebody snarked

about quoting WC Williams
in a Metafilter thread
on poetry.

It was inevitable
really, it was always
going to happen.
posted by spicynuts at 7:52 AM on January 13, 2006


this smacks of 'No True Scotsman' arrogance.

Yeah, actually it does. I don't like "this isn't art/music/poetry" arguments, and I'm veering dangerously close to that. Furthermore, I'd rather celebrate what I love than denigrate what I don't like. I guess I'm bothered by the fact that so many people think of Collins when they think of poetry, that he's considered the quintessential poet of the day. It's not that I hate his writing, it's that I hate the overestimation of it, which isn't his fault. He's sort of the Stephen Vincent Benet of the early 21st century (except that Benet could wield rhyme and meter), which is OK, I guess. This too shall pass.
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on January 13, 2006


I guess I'm bothered by the fact that so many people think of Collins when they think of poetry, that he's considered the quintessential poet of the day. It's not that I hate his writing, it's that I hate the overestimation of it, which isn't his fault.
I can definitely see that; I can't say that I've read a LOT of poetry, but people like Ted Hughes, Kooser, and Wendel barry are the ones I gravitate towards when I do. I've watched and read a few interviews with Collins, and he strikes me as relatively unassuming, a genuine lover of words, and someone who wants to see a love of poetry spread to wider audiences.

That emphasis, for better or worse, made him a 'safe' poet to refer to in the same way that Maya Angelou was safe to refer to as a 'favorite poet' in the 90s.
posted by verb at 8:32 AM on January 13, 2006


languagehat writes "I guess I'm bothered by the fact that so many people think of Collins when they think of poetry, that he's considered the quintessential poet of the day."

This is too true about too many things. My anger is aroused when I see mediocrity celebrated in lieu of genius. I wish that it weren't so prevalent an impulse. And I do think that Collins asks little of his readers, and while that can be celebrated as a democratic impulse, it's also fair to say that it doesn't advance quality much. I've been getting up to all kinds of high dudgeon in the Frey thread for just this reason. I could care less if people enjoy reading Frey, but when people start talking about what a "good" book it is I want to take them to school. (Another favorite of mine is how people who've never read any philosophy talk about how mind-blowing ideas behind The Matrix are.) Collins is miles above those two examples for quality and thought, but he isn't exaclty putting the language through its paces.
posted by OmieWise at 8:34 AM on January 13, 2006


He doesn't use words in the way that genuine poets use words. If you can't see that, I can't help you.

Ah, so T.S. Eliot died and left you in charge of who is and isn't a "genuine" poet? Your statment mostly boils down to you saying that Collins doen'st use words the same way that poets you like (many of whom I like as well) use words. Of course I can see differences between Sappho's use of words and Collins'. But What i can't see is some similarity that is present in the way "Homer, Sappho, and Archilochus, the troubadours and Elizabethans, the usual suspects from the 19th century and the great Russian and American modernists of the early 20th" all use(d) words.

they're not crafted as poems, they're crafted as comforting little pseudo-poems calculated to make Garrison Keillor melt and want to read them in his resonant bariton

How is it that your opinion about what is and isn't poetry is definitive?

I guess I'm bothered by the fact that so many people think of Collins when they think of poetry, that he's considered the quintessential poet of the day.

Who? How many? Is there a survey or some hard data about that? Or are just responding to the fact that he's been over-marketed and over-exposed by our lazy media? Then you've been pulled in by the NY Times, is all. The same people who brought us Jayson Blair and phoned-in coverage of the war are also bringing us phoned-in, lazy coverage of poets and poetry. A few years ago, Collins was the media's darling. Now they can attack him. Man bites dog. Sell papers.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:42 AM on January 13, 2006


I'm a bit late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I loved this thread. There have been a lot of good LitFilter threads lately, and that's just fabulous.
posted by painquale at 8:51 AM on January 13, 2006


Writing
about writing

is like fingering
your asshole.
It may feel good

but is impolite to
show to strangers.


Some girls make a living doing that.
More than you can say for poetry.
posted by Grangousier at 8:55 AM on January 13, 2006


Another favorite of mine is how people who've never read any philosophy talk about how mind-blowing ideas behind The Matrix are.

Oh, that is one of my favorite axes to grind as well.


Ideally, Collins' broad exposure in the mass media would spark renewed interest in poetry, leading people who had little knowledge of what else might be out there to discover a greater range of works. But that discussion has to be intentional; it doesn't happen naturally. In a way, I almost feel as if it's imcumbent upon a poet to spur more advanced dicussion of poetry, though maybe that isn't a fair expectation. Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project was a step in a good direction. Garrison Kiellor's Good Poems is a solid, populist introduction to poetry, and I like what he does on his Writer's Almanac. These projects do aim to gently introduce perspectives on poetry by familiarizing them somewhat. They offer a slightly more thoughtful examination.

What saddens me is that contemporary poetry often seems to get caught in a feedback loop that omits the broad perspective entirely. The 'anyone can be a poet/any arrangement of words on page can be a poem' school of thought makes it seem easy, and causes the bar to be set very low. Poetry becomes 'what I write in my marbleized composition book, hewing closely to styles and themes I heard read from composition books last week, all inspired by styles and themes in poetry mags, zines, and the work of very popular poets of the present day.' It seems to have become a very circular and self-referential art.
posted by Miko at 8:58 AM on January 13, 2006


It seems to have become a very circular and self-referential art.

Speaking of that, this thread has brought to mind a poem I once wrote.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:05 AM on January 13, 2006


Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?

Collins stock in trade is the modest observation. His greatest sin is that he was rewarded for that modesty. Success always carries a backlash, and exalting something that seems too simple is always a recipe for hate. The real crime, though, isn't that Collins has had a bit of exposure, but that so many other poets have not.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:09 AM on January 13, 2006


Wonderful, eustacescrubb! Thank you!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:11 AM on January 13, 2006


I love poetry, and recommend a good anthology to start. Currently I am reading the collected works of Octavio Paz, stuff which blows my mind.

I had never heard of Billy Collins either. I read some of his poems, and liked a couple of them, but overall they sound kind of paint-by-numbers for complete beginners. At times they almost sound like entries in a dark and stormy night poetry contest.

I love Dr. Wu's line it thinks it's being clever by waffling between real and "real,".
posted by blue shadows at 9:15 AM on January 13, 2006


Currently I am reading the collected works of Octavio Paz

I like Octavio Paz too. You made me realize that when I said I didn't like contemporary poetry, I should have been more specific. I tend not to like contemporary American/English poetry. But I do occasionally find a Latin American or Eastern European poem in translation which stands out from the crowd.
posted by Miko at 9:18 AM on January 13, 2006


But to call him a good poet is to misuse words.

Languagehat! misuse words? Have you had a conversion experience?!


I very much enjoyed that review, and the ensuing thread. I'm lukewarm to Collins, can find it enjoyable but am not blown away. As to the claim that it's deep if you know how to look, I'd just like to point out that that is true of just about anything. I've mentioned before Emerson's suggestion that our intellectual hunger means we'll feed on "boiled grass & the broth of shoes" if need be - we will find meaning and stimulation wherever we can. Language itself is poetry if you stand back from it a little, etc.

That's not to say that there's no skill involved, or that this isn't a better meal than that,etc, but just a reminder that it's not as if the words themselves hold a certain, eternal reward if you can just unlock it. The reader brings a lot to the poem, and the writer is responding to ideas and feelings, not encoding them, so the experience of finding 'deeper' meaning in a poem is subjective.
posted by mdn at 9:26 AM on January 13, 2006


I have to say that it's been a long time since any English-writing poet captivated me in any significant way. Most of the Beat stuff starts out strong, then bores me, Maya Angelou always struck me as someone that I was supposed to like the way I'm supposed to enjoy Oprah's movies, and poems about poems are like songs about songs: omphaloskepsis at best, masturbatory drivel at worst.

Oh look, I am
writing a poem
and have
nothing else
to say aside
from
how intense/moving/
poetic it is
to write a poem
Perhaps, I will
leave you with
images of a bird
or something.

Bullshit. I can respect a lot of poetry up to modernism, and Eliot through Pound really does speak to me (maybe I love fascists), but (oh you lovers of poetry) give me something else! Neruda and Paz are the only poets where I can think of actually seeking out their work for pleasure, rather than reading them through a class, and I loved them (especially when the translation faces the original, since even though my Spanish is vestigial at best, I feel like I get a better sense of the sound and the meaning that way).

I hate to come across as the grumpy anti-intellectual, but 99% of the time when I see a poem, I simply think that the author lacked the one decent beating that could have turned them toward something less mincing and self-involved. The only real writer I can think of where I significantly prefer the poetry is Plath, and I think she's an outlier.

Perhaps I've been writing about music too long, and have been subjected to too many lyricists who think they're poets, but when I see someone like Collins I think "Why the fuck is he bothering? Why not just write prose and not be a nattering git about stanzas, since they don't have any metrical meaning anyway?"
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 AM on January 13, 2006


Dr. Wu's views on postmodernism in this thread = truth.
posted by youarenothere at 10:05 AM on January 13, 2006


Omphaloskepsis is my new favorite word
posted by pantsrobot at 11:09 AM on January 13, 2006


Ethereal Bligh: "All I want from poetry is authenticity, just as I want from all art."

I like this statement. Not sure how you meant it in reference to Collins, specifically, but it describes my feelings pretty well. I have studied and enjoy a wide range of poets, but I would say the one thing they seem to have in common is an authentic voice. Some of them use language playfully, some of them write deeply personal stories. I enjoy many of the poets linked above, and too many others besides. Some of them rage. Some of them contemplate. Some define genres. Others defy them. But each of them is pretty distinctive in their own right. Point is, I like them because of their differences, not despite them.

I would argue that Collins is also an authentic voice. That his voice doesn't appeal to all is both understandable and inevitable. It's a quiet voice, with no real pretensions of high art. As I've already said above, I think it's really his success that makes him seem so worth dismissing, rather than the quality of his writing. To me, much of the nay saying here feels equivalent to calling March of the Penguins bad simply because it is neither Hamlet, nor Apocalypse Now. But that’s really just a statement of taste, not a genuine critique of a thing on its own merits. I find “Meh” to be a perfectly valid critique of Collins. To claim that what he does is simply “bad,” or not “real poetry,” though, I think misrepresents not only Collins, but poetry as a varied and complex artform.

Okay - I'll shut up now.

*But did you actually read eustacescrubb's poem? I enjoyed it very much.*
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:19 AM on January 13, 2006


eustacescrubb writes "Speaking of that, this thread has brought to mind a poem I once wrote."

This was good.
posted by OmieWise at 11:27 AM on January 13, 2006


Why not just write prose and not be a nattering git about stanzas, since they don't have any metrical meaning anyway?"

I agree. A good deal of poetry like this gets under my skin because I feel like the only thing that garners it attention is the fact that it's sliced into stanzas. Somehow taking what should just be a an observational paragraph your journal and calling it a poem because you chopped it into stanzas assigns a gravitas to it that would not be there otherwise. It comes across as a cheap way of saying "Look at me I'm an artist" rather than "Look at me I wrote a story". In a world full of James Freys, it's like a quick means of distinguishing oneself from the masses and it feels disingenuous to me. But that's just my preference.
posted by spicynuts at 12:06 PM on January 13, 2006


Thanks, youarenothere!

Ethereal Bligh writes: Dr. Wu, your insistent attempts to blame postmodernism for Collins, American poetry, and tooth decay seem misplaced. It's guilty of numerous crimes, but Collins isn't one of them.

EB, I respectfully disagree. It seems to me (again, I'm not very familar with Collins's work) that these poems are quite symptomatic of a trend in late-20th-century works toward stylelessness as a style. If you'll bear with me a moment: this is what Kevin Smith does, in my opinion, and I find it to be an extremely lazy form of alleged cleverness. Smith - and Collins, it seems to me - says, in directing his films, something like, "My style is to have no style - I just put the camera anywhere and edit semi-haphazardly. This, then, becomes my style." I would say that this is utter bullshit, though: the absence of a style is just that: the absence of a style; stylelessness is not the same thing as improvisation, or stream-of-consciousness.

Collins's poems - the few that I've read - seem to be doing the same thing. They're bland ramblings of no particular insight, and which make no especially interesting use of, in my opinion, language. But these very shortcomings are passed off as the poems' virtues. Again, I think this is lazy and cheap, and I do think it is indicative of a banal postmodernism that values cutesiness and namecheckery over genuine innovation. But I don't even need innovation! If a poem/film/painting/whatever hits with precision certain conventions -- if it's a good exemplar of a style -- I find this very compelling, as well. It's just that I don't find either of these qualities in Collins (or Smith, or Adaptation, which was mentioned upthread and which I find to be just a hatefully smug, have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too movie). If that makes me an essentialist, so be it. But I do think that these poems are formally uninteresting, and, moreover, symptomatic of a sort of blase (can't make an accent...) postmodernism that has been infecting many arts for a good couple decades.

What is your take on Collins's work?

(PS. Tried to post this some time ago, but kept getting connection errors.)
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:21 PM on January 13, 2006


Dr. Wu,

I'll be the first to admit that I am no expert on poetry. But I've read some and I have a few favorite authors and I am -- if I care enough to invest the time -- willing to read through less accessible stuff.

You seem to be annoyed with a general trend in pop culture entertainment, but I don't think that you're being very fair to Collins by lumping him in with Clerks and Adaptation.

Collins' work (at least what I've read of it) uses relatively simple language and direct speech, but the themes he explores are no less complex or nuanced than those other poets tackle. In the interviews I've read with him, he doesn't seem to pretend that his approach is somehow more authentic, in some sort of one-downmanship race. Humor and pleasure-with-words doesn't imply, to me at least, 'cutesy' tricks or banal postmodernism. The entire thread, really, reminds me of Collins' introduction to the book Poetry 180:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
It's not one of his best, or most complex, by any means. But it's always made me chuckle. And reminded me that ultimately, poetry is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed.

(Of course, in another thread, I'm arguing the opposite about the Christian Book Market. Thank you, Left Behind.)
posted by verb at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2006


Dr. Wu,

I thought your original contention was that the review was a kind of lazy postmodernism, which may be true. I just don't see Collins himself, however, as a postmodernist of any stripe, nor do I really understand your suggestion that knowing stylelessness is postmodern. I hesitate to get into a discussion of what postmodernism is, as they tend to spiral toward infinity, but in my much more than cursory experience, postmodernism is more about a willfull complexity than a knowing simplicity. This is true of many "post" things, as they are both incorporating and exceeding that which they are post.

I'm not making any argument here as to the quality of Collins' poetry, but about its postmodernism. This kind of use of that term always strikes me, forgive me, as something said by people who don't have much exposure to postmodernism or to thinking about it. Again, I'm not making an argument about the quality of postmodernism, something which would be impossible to do without reference to a particular postmodern thing. Its just that I've read a lot of commentary by people who would like to hold postmodernism accountable for just about everything they don't like, which makes it a completely useless term (which it may be anyway, for a different set of reasons best left unexamined here), while actually missing what postmodernism is.

I apologize if I've gotten your gist wrong, I'm making this post in the spirit of conversation not correction. I also apologize becuase I'm leaving work and probably can't engage in any more discussion for a while.
posted by OmieWise at 1:54 PM on January 13, 2006


I urge anyone remotely interested in this thread to check out the current U.S. Poet Laureate, and first that isn't from one of the coasts: Ted Kooser and his weekly column: American Life in Poetry.

He's all about bringing poetry back to the common man and one of his complaints is that the poetry of the 20th Century became the first that had to be explained (if anyone got it at all).
posted by spock at 1:57 PM on January 13, 2006


Word, Ted Kooser. Nebraska represent!
posted by dead_ at 2:31 PM on January 13, 2006


poetry is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed

the poetry of the 20th Century became the first that had to be explained


Without having read Kooser, I want to present a challenge to these statements.

I think great poetry, like most great art, tends to yield more insight the more it is examined. It may or may not have elements that are immediately apprehended -- though the most appealing works do -- but universally, great art gets more interesting the more closely you look.

Analysis, then, isn't some cold, evil laboratory tool, but a process which brings the reader greater understanding and pleasure. Analysis is the means by which poetry engages people.

Here's an analogy: Think of a meal prepared by a great chef. You can experience the look and aroma and taste of the food immediately. A lot of people merely experience great food, and that seems good enough. Not to know or care how it was cooked, or what traditions gave rise to the dish, is fine, and certainly doesn't interfere with the tasting.

But to slow down, stop, savor, notice, guess, wonder, discuss, hypothesize, inquire --this is analysis, and it brings a much greater sensory reward. By taking the time to think about the particular blends of spices that were used, to weigh sauces on the tongue, to compare textures, to notice how the effects of hot and cold are increased by juxtaposition -- this is to analyze.

To use the same approach to poetry, to deeply consider what meaning words might hold, to think and re-think a particular phrase, is to be fully involved with the poet in making meaning from the poem. To merely experience a poem is to dip your toe in just the shallowest waters of poetry. The experience is step one, not the ultimate aim of the form. It's in the analysis that great poetry reveals its best surprises and delights.

Having spent untold hours of my undergraduate career pulling apart three-line segments of Shakespeare and being astounded at the packed layers of meaning in such small nuggets, I don't think the idea of complexity is anything endemic to the 20th century. There are many passages in pre-Modern poetry which benefit from explanation. For centuries, or milennia, poets have placed a priority on explaining their poetry to each other; today you can read their correspondence and their long prose pieces on their own approach to poetics. It's hard to take the statement that pre-Modern poetry never needed explaining seriously.

In fact, these days, it's more often than not the older poetry that requires the most explanation, because it depends for much of its sense on a widely understood body of allusive references - classical, biblical, and current. Most of those references are blanks where today's readers are concerned.
posted by Miko at 3:13 PM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]


As a former English major, I had two literary loves: Shakespeare, and writing my own poetry. Miko, I hear ya on those "untold hours" of "pulling apart three-line segments of Shakespeare," and I took umbrage to the statement that pre-Modern poetry was relatively simple as well. If the only poetry requiring analysis was written after the 19th century, I wasted a whole lot of time scanning lines of poetry and analyzing imagery into the wee hours of the morning. Think of all that valuable drinking time I lost out on! In all seriousness, I can honestly say that I never understood what language, essentially arbitrary in nature, was capable of until I learned to really read Shakespeare.

That said, I move on to my other love: writing poetry. I started off in an intro creative writing class, and one segment of the course was devoted to writing poetry. I dreaded it all semester, because the last time I had dabbled in poetry was 4th grade (incidentally, "It's Cool to Go to School!" won 4th place in a poetry contest). But I gave it the old college try (heh) and discovered that I absolutely loved to write poems. I had a great time playing with enjambment, slant rhyme, alliteration- you name it. After that class, I went on to take all the creative poetry classes offered at my university, and as time when on I got a little better at it. I'll never publish a book of poetry, but I think I'm okay at it. During this time, I started venturing into the poetry section at Borders more often, and on one of these excursions I happened to find Nine Horses by Billy Collins. I read the whole thing sitting there on the floor, and I loved it. Collins is no Shakespeare. He's no Gjertrud Schnackenberg (my absolute favorite contemporary poet- look her up!). But (being a well-trained English major), I took the time to go beyond a cursory glance at Collins' work and find a lot of honest, universal truths. And no, they're not cloaked in complexity, and they're not even life-changing, but they are very human, and that's what I like about Billy Collins.

After reading all the critiques on this thread, I felt kind of ashamed of myself for my "simpleton" taste in poetry and for my own style of writing. I'm sure my poems would get slammed for their diction, lack of depth, blah blah blah. So I went back and I read some Collins and some of my own poems, and I felt stupid for feeling ashamed. I'm not pursuing poetry (or anything related to literature, for that matter) for grad school, and one of the reasons is that I just can't make myself be the kind of literary snob that I feel I'd have to be to cut it. I certainly respect all the posts on this thread- I think there's a lot of great ideas going around, probably contributed by people with a lot more education that I have. And if I felt like it, I could be an intellectual snob, too. I've done it, and I think it's kind of silly.
posted by charmania at 5:10 PM on January 13, 2006


I would like to say that post-modernism is taking a much undeserved beating here, and that there's boring work presented as profound isn't a symptom of that, no matter what the medium.
posted by klangklangston at 6:05 PM on January 13, 2006


Dr. Wu, as someone else wrote, lack of artifice and a surplus of ingenuity is very far from postmodernism. As to Kevin Smith, I don't recall him ever claiming to be a good photographer. He certainly isn't and I don't think this flaw of his films is a contrivance, but rather a simple lack of skill. I happen to think he partly makes up for it with a few virtues.

I don't have a strong opinion of Collins, not being familiar with his work, nor being familiar with contemporary poetry. But my impression isn't favorable. The lack of technique is, from what I've seen, a completely valid and devastating charge.

My aesthetic can be stated as "Art is the effective communication of valuable an interesting ideas within the constraints—often formally defined and often strict—of prescribed technique." Art clearly cannot be the idea or experience alone—those are self-sufficient. Art requires technique and, consequently, good art requires technical mastery. In my case, this is a deliberately naive and classical view of art that elides the vast complexity of the interaction of idea and technique and ignores the metatext viewpoint of postmodernism—a perspective which is surely valuable.

However, with the uncomplicated view in mind, I'd say that one of the arguments in this thread can be distilled into a disagreement about which is primary: the putative idea or technique. And it's only been in these last ten years or so that I've finally understood that there is a matter of personality, of temperment, here with regard to one's preferred subjective focus. For example, I read books whole and digest them for ideas while, in contrast, others delicately pick at them and savor each subtle flavor. I greatly prefer the telos portion of the eidos, not the techne. I am almost blind to technique and as a result I can tolerate a great many "bad" writers that present, nevertheless, valuable ideas. And indeed this is my view of Smith (although I think there is technique in his dialogue).

But I no longer denigrate the other view which finds technique primary, particularly with regard to the language arts. Words are things in themselves, both as written and spoken, there is a music to them and they can be manipulated in such a way that the manipulation itself becomes a thing of intrinsic beauty, not least as the result of what postmodernism claims, correctly, is the blurring of syntax and semantics.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:42 PM on January 13, 2006


Analysis, then, isn't some cold, evil laboratory tool, but a process which brings the reader greater understanding and pleasure. Analysis is the means by which poetry engages people.

While I understand the point you are making, and I don't disagree with it entirely, I would suggest that analysis is the means by which poetry engages analysts.

Aren't you really just restating an Emperor's New Clothes argument? "Smart people understand/like it - so if you don't you aren't smart"? I'm going to suggest that people can't be "engaged" by something they can't even get a handle on. I've read plenty of poetry for which I haven't a clue as to what the poet is even writing about. At least when you are at a live poetry reading you usually get the benefit of and introduction, which is often necessary to assist in navigating what is to follow.

I would argue that the decline in poetry's popularity over the last century would give credence to Kooser's position - that poetry should be taken back from the poetry critics and the academics (who have no job if they have nothing to interpret for the unwashed masses) and to give it back to the common man.

Kooser says that poets' careers today are "made" by the poetry critics, who can make or break reputations by what they write. Thus many of today's poets are writing for that audience - the poetry critics (the analysts, if you will). I agree with Kooser: Poetry is too important to be locked in that ivory tower.
posted by spock at 9:21 PM on January 13, 2006


Aren't you really just restating an Emperor's New Clothes argument? "Smart people understand/like it - so if you don't you aren't smart"? I'm going to suggest that people can't be "engaged" by something they can't even get a handle on.

No, I'm not suggesting that at all. No emperor's clothes here -- I really think anyone can learn and use the tools of analysis. Some are very simple tools we use all the time -- they're about spending time with the poem, rereading it, examining it, thinking it over. Then, of course, there are so many other ways you can examine a poem, when you learn a few more, like metrical systems and rhetorical devices.

And on top of that, not even the 'smart people' get it every time. Sometimes those things that are the toughest to understand become the most intriguing. There are some poems I really don't get, but something in them is alluring enough to keep me coming back to puzzle at them.

Finally, being impenetrable doesn't make a poem good in itself. I'm definitely not saying that everything that's hard to read is good. I think, to be really great, there has to be something immediately attractive or attention-getting about a poem, even if it's just a short phrase or a weirdness or a jarring image. But there has to be something more than that, too, to make it worth going back to. Single-layer poems don't stay interesting.
posted by Miko at 9:51 PM on January 13, 2006


^should be "benefit of an introduction". I really hate making typos in a thread that is being analyzed by English majors.
: )

posted by spock at 9:54 PM on January 13, 2006


Favorite poets: Ted Hughes, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, e e cummings, Adrienne Rich, Jean Toomer, Pablo Neruda, William Wordsworth, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, &c.
posted by nonmerci at 11:52 PM on January 13, 2006


Again, what Miko said very well, and to add: the idea of critical reading seems to be conflated by several people with criticism, so that it becomes an entirely negative term, redolent of snobbery, judgement, elitism.

To return to Li-Young Lee, to "I Ask My Mother to Sing": this is a simple, readily understandable poem. Yet the moment you give it sharp attention, little complexities reveal themselves. The poem's steeped in water -- in imagery (boats, rain, waterlilies, tears) and in sound (especially as the poem gathers momentum into the third stanza, with all those soft ells and esses). That wateriness becomes a kind of soft music of loss and sorrow, the deeper subject of the poem. That's a very basic critical reading, but it helps explain the feeling it evokes in me and why I love it and remember it after all the years after I first read it. Analysis isn't necessarily hostile to pleasure; it can provide tools to explain and share it.

You may well dislike the poem's style, subject, aesthetic -- that's a matter of taste, which should vary widely, because that's what keeps poetry alive and accessible to different people. But the skill, the craft, the attention to detail is undeniable, whether you like the poem itself or not.

From what I've read of Collins, his poems don't reward that kind of attention. They present an accessible surface, then stop. If you think that there's something there I'm missing, don't tell me I'm not a careful enough reader; explain what you see that I don't. I keep waiting for someone to say this image, this bit of language, this moment of insight, that's what I love about Billy Collins. But the words that keep getting repeated instead are friendly, little, soft, unassuming. That makes it sound like pudding.

It is not elitist to ask for more from a poem, to expect that care be given to language, to structure, to movement, to revelation, to accuracy. It's far more elitist to suggest that the "common man," whoever he's supposed to be, is somehow less capable of valuing those things, as if they were some country club pursuit. I've never needed one thin dime to love a poem. Instead, I truly believe poetry is wonderfully democratic, because voices as different from one another as Dickinson and Lee and Komunyakaa can join in one great conversation because they all share a common merit. Like languagehat said, I'm bothered by the fact that so many people think of Collins when they think of poetry, that he's considered one of the quintessential poets of the day -- an American poet laureate. That kind of elevation carries with it an expectation of quality and reward. It should. But I don't see it.
posted by melissa may at 1:06 AM on January 14, 2006 [2 favorites]


melissa may said everything I wanted to say, only better. So all I'll add is that if you (generalized "you," I don't have anyone in particular in mind) don't like to analyze and prefer to rely on surface impressions, that's fine, everybody's different, I'm not going to call you names or look down on you... but please don't assume that those who do like to analyze and reach deeper into poems (or music or art) are snobbish or are only pretending to get something extra out of it so they can score cocktail-party points. It's just a different kind of experience, one we enjoy. And like the lady said, it's cheap.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 AM on January 14, 2006


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


Yeah; These new poets don't know how to write any more. Look for example, at this beauty from Wordsworth. Each verse riddled with complexity and hidden meaning. It's amazing that it's still so popular, given how difficult it is to read and understand.
posted by seanyboy at 6:26 AM on January 14, 2006


Be careful, seanyboy! You may be aiding the opposition.

First, you should really quote the whole poem. [continuing..]

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
*
So here's a great example of what some us were saying above -- this poem has a first layer, an experience if you want to call it that, which can immediately be understood. But if you spend more time with it, it gets better.

First, there's context. Though this poem isn't in my top ten list of his works, it's classic Wordsworth. When you read it along with his other stuff, you can see it as one more take on a few of his favorite themes: s was experience vs. memory, the act of 'recollecting'; the action of nature on the soul; and the ultimate (and sometimes sad) solitude of the individual.

Then, too, it's written with a structure. The ideas did not splay out willy-nilly across the page, but were worked into a careful spare pattern. No fluff. The rhyme 'gay/company' is slightly off, which signals where the poem 'breaks' for me and calls for further attention.

In that stanza, he's sort of obsering himself from outside, saying "a poet could not be but gay" -- but at the same time appears to be admitting that he "little thought/what wealth to me the show had brought." So he's seeing this gorgeous spectacle, kind of aware that he should be moved by it as a poet, but hasn't completely taken it in. It's not until the end of the poem, when he's back home laying on his couch and remembering the experience, that he says "then my heart with pleasure fills." So, in a way, he's saying that the value of the experience isn't in the experience itself. It's in the memory of the experience.

It's cool that the first two stanzas are each a complete sentence ending with a full stop, but the last two are one sentence, carrying straight on through to the last line.

Word choice is fun to consider, too. And the challenge of fitting ideas into metrics sometimes results in more interesting word choices than free verse does. I remember talking about the use of "crowd" and "host" to refer to the daffodils - 'crowd' carrying human associations, and 'host' definitely Biblical ones.

So yeah, languagehat is probably right in that some of us just have fun with this kind of exploration and some don't. I guess I just feel that it's the point of poetry. Why take all the trouble to craft a small, elaborate, structured piece of language if it's just going to present just a simple image or idea that could be plainly stated in prose?

In choosing Wordsworth as an example of simple language, you chose wisely. He would never have said poetry was one-dimensional -- he was one of the guys who spent a lot of time expounding upon his theory of poetics, in things like the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and in his correspondence. He was also one of those in the never-ending line who saw himself as a democratizer of poetry, introducing the speech of everyday life and the simplicity of natural images into poetry where classicism had been before.

He happens to be one of my favorites. He's very direct. But he worked hard at his craft, and the care he took with language elevates the quality of his poems and makes his ideas stick. He's one of those whose great lines just float into my head now and then when I need them: "The world is too much with us, late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers" or "feeling comes in aid/ of feeling, and diversity of strength/ attends us, if but once we have been strong." I echo Melissa May's request - can anyone identify a couple of verses of Collins that have that sort of effect on them?

So this is the game. You don't have to be an academic to play it. It's bouncing stuff around, it's comparing notes, it's noticing. Anybody can notice. It's no different from sitting at the diner discussing impressions of a movie you just saw.

But anyway: this has been a great thread, so thanks to all. It really falls into a grand tradition, discussing who is or isn't a crap poet. That tradition is as old as anything else in poetry. And it's kind of cool that any online discussion could cause me to sit on a Saturday morning with a book of Wordsworth open on my lap, thinking and re-thinking. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 9:17 AM on January 14, 2006 [1 favorite]


Heh. Plenty of typos in that post from this English major. Consider my high horse dismounted.
posted by Miko at 9:18 AM on January 14, 2006


Art is largely and necessarily about artifice. Of course it is.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:31 AM on January 14, 2006


I'll add to Miko's example with one I just ran across in an essay on Dickinson by the wonderful poet Hayden Carruth:
This [the fact that she worked hard on her poems] is true of her rhyming as well. One cannot doubt her ability to make rhymes as correct... as those of Christina Rossetti or Alfred Tennyson or any other poet of her time. She chose to let her aural imagination range freely, and one result is that her off-rhymes, which vary from close to distant, together with her reliance on well-known rhyming patterns (hymns, ballads, etc.), force the reader to hear rhymes where none exist. The first three stanzas of the poem numbered 410 [in the Johnson edition] are a good example, though you can find others even more extreme:
The first Day's Night had come —
And grateful that a thing
So terrible — had been endured —
I told my Soul to sing —

She said her Strings were snapt —
Her Bow — to Atoms blown —
And so to mend her — gave me work
Until another Morn —

And then — a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face —
Until it blocked my eyes —
The progression from "thing/sing" through "blown/Morn" to "pairs/eyes," from full rhyme to off-rhyme to no rhyme, is remarkable in its manipulation of the auditor's rhyming sense, making one "hear" what isn't there in the third stanza...
Sure, you can enjoy the poem without that insight, but doesn't it add to your experience to know it? And note that it's not some irrelevant technical trick thrown in to show off: the falling away from full rhyme parallels the "unrolling" of the experience of horror and subtly emphasizes it.
posted by languagehat at 9:50 AM on January 14, 2006


"So yeah, languagehat is probably right in that some of us just have fun with this kind of exploration and some don't. I guess I just feel that it's the point of poetry. Why take all the trouble to craft a small, elaborate, structured piece of language if it's just going to present just a simple image or idea that could be plainly stated in prose?"

Something that I'd say to that is that the work still has to provide an interesting experience upfront, otherwise I feel little need to read deeper. I really liked that Li-Young Lee bit above, and would return to it. Nothing I've seen from Collins would make me do that.
(And as a bit of a poetry neophyte, this has been a really enjoyable thread. Another one of those "this is why I joined Metafilter" even if I couldn't offer all that much to the discussion.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 AM on January 14, 2006


I want to disagree with you miko, but I can't. You God Damned Eloquent Motherfucker.
You Rock.
posted by seanyboy at 11:50 AM on January 14, 2006


I will disagree with minor points though.
This is not to say that you're wrong, but that I'm nit-picking for the sake of it.

The rhyme 'gay/company' is slightly off, which signals where the poem 'breaks' for me and calls for further attention

Wrong! The Rhyme is between Glee and Company, and it's a full rhyme. Well it is when I say it, and my accent's probably not too far off from Wordsworth's.

The Rhyming scheme through all three stanzas is ababcc, and to me, there isn't any kind of break.
posted by seanyboy at 12:12 PM on January 14, 2006


No, No, No...
Now I'm doubting myself.
Do I say "Cumpanee", or do I say "Cumpani". I can't remember any more.
posted by seanyboy at 12:14 PM on January 14, 2006


I say CumPaNee.
I had to tape myself doing it, but it was worth it.
That's four comments in a row. I'm gonna stop talking to myself now.
posted by seanyboy at 12:37 PM on January 14, 2006


Thanks seanyboy. You rock too. And you're totally right about glee/company.
posted by Miko at 1:14 PM on January 14, 2006


Now that I've listened to the tape, I must say I wouldn't mind listening to you read a lot more Wordsworth.
posted by Miko at 1:15 PM on January 14, 2006


I'm not going to call you names or look down on you... but please don't assume that those who do like to analyze and reach deeper into poems (or music or art) are snobbish or are only pretending to get something extra out of it so they can score cocktail-party points. It's just a different kind of experience, one we enjoy. And like the lady said, it's cheap.

Ah, but that statment is markedly different from "It's just that they're not crafted as poems, they're crafted as comforting little pseudo-poems calculated to make Garrison Keillor melt and want to read them in his resonant baritone." It that, and not your preference for other kinds of poetry, that makde you come off like a snob.

I like Collins, and I like Li Young Lee. I like poems that function more rheotrically and are straightforward, and I like poems that are complex with multiple levels. I think often Collins writes poems that consist of a few crisp images and that's it, which is fine, and then sometimes his poems do invite deeper exploration, which is also fine. There's room in the world for both kinds of poetry. There are few enough poetry lovers in the world that it seems silly to argue over something like this.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:43 AM on January 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Fair enough.
posted by languagehat at 10:24 AM on January 15, 2006


Excellent comments by melissa may, miko, seanyboy and eustacescrubb. Thanks for a great conversation. lh, as always, as well.
posted by OmieWise at 1:09 PM on January 15, 2006


I, however, am chopped liver. No, no... that's okay. I like chopped liver. Sure, it's not as rewarding as filet minion, but it's still pretty good for innards.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:01 PM on January 15, 2006


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