December 2005

Megan Marz

poetry

The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins

In college, I once heard a classmate chided for using the word horizon in a poem. Horizon is a word, our teacher said, that has become so poetically hackneyed it is nearly impossible to use meaningfully in poetry.

Halfway through The Trouble With Poetry, Billy Collins reflects on similar advice from “My poetry instruction book / which I bought at an outdoor stall along the river.” Among the rules in his book are “Avoid the word cortex / the word velvety, and the word cicada.” Anyone who has read too many contemporary poems that misguidedly attempt to channel the Romantics could add few words to this list: pomegranate, perhaps, or rose. But in this poem, “The Student,” Collins mocks such advice, not only with his tone, but by ending the poem with explicit disregard for his instruction book. Dabblers in poetry might find such rules useful, the poem suggests, but true poets need not abide by them.

Much of this collection, in fact, flies in the face of the idea that traditionally poetic words have worn out their artistic welcome in today’s poems. Collins not only conjures images of “watercolors on the horizon,” he also mentions “windows and a field beyond” and a “bright moon on the glimmering water.” And perhaps he, like my classmate, should also be admonished for these moments. For in his poems, too, these expressions often seem hackneyed and saccharine, almost like stock images. It’s as if Collins, having achieved a popularity no other living poet can match, feels entitled to indulge himself in the words that he feels connect him with a great poetic tradition.

But this collection as a whole reveals that it’s no great indulgence. If Collins occasionally fails, it’s not in service of himself, but in the service of, as he puts it, adding “something / to one of the ancient themes.” Adding to, or at least riffing on, these themes -- “youth dancing with his eyes closed / for example / in the shadows of corruption and death” -- is something Collins succeeds at, sometimes brilliantly.

In The Trouble With Poetry, he achieves much of his success by contending with Time, the book’s most prominent theme. Time here twists and bends and layers itself, becoming a metaphor for our tangible humanity. By contending with time, and questioning what is beyond it, Collins also questions the human world, attempting to peer into the great intangible beyond. He is “knotted up with questions / about the past and his tall, evasive sister the future,” in one poem, and in another reflects that the past and the future are “nothing but an only child with two different masks.” This notion of past and future as two versions of a single whole, along with the simultaneous acknowledgement that they are entirely human, begs the question: is there something beyond our human time, and must there then be some truth beyond all that we humans perceive?

Collins struggles here with both parts of this question by using, as he always does, familiar human implements: salt and pepper shakers, an old house, a toy train, yellow flowers in a glass of water. He tries to break out of his position “strapped to the turning / wheel of mischance and disaster” even as he enjoys “a ham sandwich / and a cold bottle of beer on the brick terrace” while he’s spinning. (Which may explain his popularity, for who among us cannot identify with this conflict?) Wallace Stevens said that “The truth must be / That you do not see, you experience, you feel / That the buxom eye brings merely its element / To the total thing,” [“Poem Written at Morning”] but Collins, while grasping at that truth, that total thing, cannot resist wondering if the element the eye brings might be just as beautiful and true as truth itself. Contemplating what may be beyond our tangible world, Collins writes of

a vaporous place
at the end of a dark tunnel
a region of silence except for

the occasional beating of wings --
and, I wanted to add
as the sun dazzled your lifted wineglass,
the sound of the newcomers weeping.

Collins concludes here that the world we see, with its sun and wineglasses, is a truth in itself, not inferior to anything beyond it. His poetry, then, though it won't always allow us to commune with the enomity of Stevens’s “total thing,” offers a more worldly form of edification, just as Lawrence Ferlinghetti did for Collins, who reveals in his title poem that he carried Ferlinghetti’s “little amusement park of a book / ...in the side pocket of my uniform / up and down the treacherous halls of high school.” And though the horizon doesn't ring fully true coming from the mouth of Billy Collins, the world, its joys, and its treacherous halls surely do.

The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins
Random House
ISBN: 037550382X
112 Pages