- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY AND OTHER POEMS

By Billy Collins

Random House, $22.95, 112 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

By all accounts, Billy Collins is our most popular serious poet. At least 250,000 copies of his previous six collections are in print, and his public readings are usually SRO. He has served as United States Poet Laureate (2001-2003), and is currently New York State Poet Laureate (2004-2006). His work has been honored with many prestigious grants and awards, and many of his fans would bet a Pulitzer is in his future.

It is obvious that his stars are favorably aligned, and that he is having a career rare among poets, even those better than he. Billy Collins’ well-deserved popularity is based, in large part, on how many members of his audiences hear his poems. I have attended two of his readings, and the loud laughter overwhelmed his words. Trying to hear a complete poem was almost impossible, though it was exhilarating to be with so many people actually enjoying, of all things, a poetry reading.

What my fellow auditors were responding to is not difficult to say. It certainly wasn’t to Mr. Collins’ reading of his poems, although he is a good reader. He is not, however, a performer using the occasion to manipulate his listeners. Many of his poems are humorous, but that humor, if not black, is a dark gray depending as it does on ironies easily missed by an audience, though quite apparent to a reader.

No, Mr. Collins does not pander to his audience. Poet-wannabees, like magicians, distract listeners from their very bad poems by a sleight-of-delivery. Good poets generally include in their programs one or two “funny” poems because they know an hour of poems on death, love and all the usual suspects could be numbing without comic relief. At least, a page may be turned, a book closed, but walking out of a reading is bad form.

Audiences respond to his humor, but also to his deceptively “simple” language, his accessibility. Only when reading his poems does it become obvious that Mr. Collins has a firm grasp of his art and craft. As he wrote in that venerable journal, “Poetry” (April 2005), “when I am composing, I am too busy concentrating on the poem … . I am paying attention to what poets pay attention to: how the poem is developing, where it wants to go; and I am thinking about line breaks, stanza formation, cadence, vowels, consonants, and other considerations for which there are no names.” In other words, he works to make a poem work, an often solitary, lonely act.

Mr. Collins explores the isolation of the poet in several poems in his new collection. Indeed, five of his seven volumes, including his latest, open with poems to readers. “You, Reader” is first in his new book, and it addresses a reader: “I wonder how you are going to feel / when you find out / that I wrote this instead of you.” Separateness is established because the poem itself is primary. The conclusion, however, unites poet-poem-reader: “me at this table with a bowl of pears, / you leaning in a doorway somewhere / near some hydrangeas, reading this.”

Many of Mr. Collins’ poems follow a similar pattern. In “Reaper,” for example, the first stanza orients the reader: “As I drove north along a country road / on a bright spring morning / I caught the look of a man on the roadside / who was carrying an enormous scythe over his shoulder.” We immediately expect the “jolt of fear / whose voltage ran from my ankles / to my scalp.” The final stanza moves from human mortality to the external world when the speaker observes “how white the houses were, / how red the barns, and green the sleepy fields.” The escapism is very human, very understandable.

Another new poem is “The Revenant:” “I am the dog you put to sleep, / as you like to call the needle of oblivion, / come back to tell you this simple thing: / I never liked you — not one bit.” A powerful, darkly humorous opening pits our so-called best friend against us. The humor, based on that irony, is quite edgy. Although an audience might laugh, lines such as “When I licked your face, / I though of biting off your nose” will make a reader squirm.

Poems about poetry and poets range from those on the poet’s isolation to those on the poet’s public role. Mr. Collins is not reluctant to deflate poets who write poems that need lengthy introductions. One of these poets tells an audience that “I don’t think this next poem / needs any introduction — / it’s best to let the work speak for itself.” Of course, the rest of Mr. Collins’ poem goes on to explain everything.

The penultimate poem is the title poem. “The Trouble With Poetry” “is / that it encourages the writing of more poetry.” The poet tells us that “poetry fills me with joy / and I rise like a feather in the wind. / Poetry fills me with sorrow / and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.” The speaker continues: “But mostly poetry fills me / with the urge to write poetry.”

The final poem in Mr. Collins’ rich book, “Silence,” presents several types of silence from “The silence of the falling vase / before it strikes the floor” to “the silence of this morning / which I have broken with my pen,” and, finally, to “the silence before I wrote a word / and the poorer silence now.”

There is sadness in Billy Collins’ work that is often overlooked because of his humor and irony. If you haven’t read his good poems before, “The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems” will send you off to get his earlier volumes. And if he gives a reading near you, by all means go. You might just get hooked on poetry.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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