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 Sailing—perhaps 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 land—say, 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-minded—it’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.
That gentle click will have to do; it’s the central pleasure. The experience is something like playing Jeopardy along with the television: Even though we don’t get to choose the categories, we nail answer after answer. This is the allegory of “Hunger,” which one now suspects was excluded from this volume for telling too much. We are each a sack bearer hauling a Collins poem; the mistaken feeling is that of readerly strength. We haven’t really learned anything, or thought more carefully, but we feel for a moment as if we might’ve.
Along with such flattery, Collins offers a dated world: He enjoys words like civics, and references to Dick and Jane. He brings up his jazz collection so frequently that when he mentions George Thorogood and the Destroyers, we are dazzled by the contemporaneity. He’s allowed. These are his poems, and if he wants to say he likes apples, no one can say he doesn’t.
Such old-timeyness is another expression of the split in the audience’s relationship to poetry. Poetry’s position is guaranteed by its history of ongoing challenges at the borders of language use. But such things are necessarily freighted with unfamiliarity, and tend to be disturbing or mysterious on first appearance. Poetry, in short, gets its status from newness—from demanding work of readers they don’t yet know how to do. But like many other things, poetry takes its ease from naturalizing what might’ve been new a few decades back into the now-familiar, from assigning us tasks we know all too well how to do: a kind of busywork for the mind that takes almost no work at all, yet lets us feel like we are doing something fine.