By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
Billy Collins is the new poet laureate. Though it's a patronage position, Collins has arrived via the seemingly democratic reason that, per The New York Times, he's "the most popular poet in America." He does sell a lot of copies, and has ever since his shamelessly charming folk-intellectual poems started appearing on NPR's Prairie Home Companion.
Here's a Collins poem, "Hunger": "The fox you lug over your shoulder/in a dark sack/has cut a hole with a knife/and escaped./The sudden lightness makes you think/you are stronger/as you walk back to your small cottage/through a forest that covers the world." This poem is not included in Sailingperhaps because it's so slight, perhaps because it's already so familiar to riders of the New York subways. But it's a good sample of Collinsiana, as found throughout his "New & Selected" volume Sailing Alone Around the Room. He speaks of "you" as freely as "I" but it's a way of inviting you to be part of a thoughtful first person. He never digs in his heels and tells you what to do or believe; nor does he leave you in the dust. Collins neither preaches nor baffles. Using direct language, he conveys specific and individual episodes where realism and surrealism overlap to produce mild mystifications. He is a poet of balance formally as well: "Hunger" makes use of the free verse accepted as the sound of modernity in most workshops, yet it also has lit-class properties we can trace. There seems to be a rule about each line having one action, one verb; it's not applied vigilantly, but so what? He's not a prig formalist any more than he's a wild-eyed avant-gardist. To put it another way, one might say he is neither British nor French. Which means, I suppose, that he is American.
Still, it's hard to expect Mr. Collins's verse, squatting neutrally on the page, to tell the story of how he came to be so popular and so bewreathed. One might better ask, What is it America thinks about poetry that allows for such an ascendance? Certainly Collins resembles the recent laureates, each committed to a none-will-be-turned-away liberal humanism. This is especially true of Robert Hass, who essentially reinvented the position as it stands, tirelessly turning it from an honorific to a lobbyist gig on behalf of poetry. But Mr. Hass also is committed to a verse culture embracing politics, aesthetic pluralism, even difficulty. Certainly Hass is a populist; it seems worthwhile to distinguish that from pure popularity. This becomes a more loaded distinction if one asks, hypothetically: What if there were a novelist laureate, and the title were summarily granted to the most popular fiction-vendor in the landsay, Tom Clancy? We would feel funny.
But no one recognizes the category "trash poetry" or the verse equivalent of a "page-turner." Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that the nation's readers form a monolith inscribed with an obvious set of desires. Nonetheless, it may be fair to detail a fundamental split in the general public's conception of poetry. On the one hand, there's a presumption that poetry is intrinsically high-mindedit's an intellectual status symbol (which is why there's a poet but no novelist laureate in the first place). On the other, there's a common (and far from new) unease that much poetry, as it appears in literary journals and prizewinning volumes, is pretentious and intractable.
Poetry's status insures that virtually any poet would be a suitable representative of Art. But people also want not to feel excluded or at a loss, by and large. Billy Collins offers the most gracious blend of status and ease currently on offer; that is perhaps the minimal definition of his job. He is happy to fit the description: His poems frequently point out he's a poet, while generating an almost pathological anti-intensity. By the last poem in the collection, he ponders whether he keeps his hold on us "because I do not pester you/with the invisible gnats of meaning?"
For those anxious to avoid such pestering, Collins's work is hospitable; one is safe as well from the buzzing bees of genius, or the distracting flashes of insight. He seems, for example, keen on a famous Nabokov parenthetical; he has taken it as the title of another book, and of a poem that leads with a full sentence from Lolita: "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three." Amid his brutal wit and strangeness, Nabokov seems to have had an actual point concerning the banality of sentimental meditations on mortality, and how shocking it might be to go in the other direction. Having invoked this, Collins unvexedly follows with a sentimental meditation on mortality.
In place of intelligence, Collins offers consistent opportunities for problem solving. One of his signature moves is to treat an abstraction as a character, or the posed as the real: He imagines a sentence walking through the snow; he chats up models in a Victoria's Secret catalog or finds "History/snoring heavily on the couch." We are expected to do little but track these exchanges of the figurative and literal. Understanding metaphors is not part of our motion toward anything; it is the entirety of our task. "The Best Cigarette" ends with the poet entering his study, "the big headlamp of my face/pointed down at all the words in parallel lines." The lines of the poem are like train tracks, and the cigarette, puff puff, helps him chug along. Click: We get it.