Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry

I decided to finish Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry before I return to E. E. Cummings’ Complete Poems 1904-1962. At 85 pages, Collins’ work is an enjoyable, easy read.

As noted earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed his recent poetry reading in Tacoma. As I struggled to explain why I like his poetry but don’t rate it as highly as poets like Hardy, Yeats, Roethke, or Cummings, I read this poem which in many ways seem to symbolize both Collins’ strengths and weaknesses:

THE INTRODUCTION

I don’t think this next poem
needs any introduction-
it’s best to let the work speak for itself.

Maybe I should just mention
that whenever I use the word five,
I’m referring to that group of Russian composers
who came to be known as “The Five,”
Balakirev, Moussorgsky, Borodin – that crowd.

Oh-and Hypsicles was a Greek astronomer.
He did something with the circle.

That’s about it, but for the record,
“Grimké” is Angelina Emily Grimké, the abolitionist.
“Imroz” is that little island near the Dardanelles.
‘Monad”-well, you all know what a monad is.

There could be a little problem
with mastaba, which is one of those Egyptian
above-ground sepulchers, sort of brick and limestone.

And you’re all familiar with helminthology?
It’s the science of worms.

Oh, and you will recall that Phoebe Mozee
is the real name of Annie Oakley.

Other than that, everything should be obvious.
Wagga Wagga is in New South Wales.
Rhyolite is that soft volcanic rock.
What else?
Yes, meranti is a type of timber, in tropical Asia I think,
and Rahway is just Rahway, New Jersey.

The rest of the poem should be clear.
I’ll just read it and let it speak for itself.

It’s about the time I went picking wild strawberries.

It’s called “Picking Wild Strawberries.”

On one level, of course, he’s simply making fun of “modern” poets who seem to enjoy obfuscation, apparently writing their poetry to appeal to the academic world who makes a living translating difficult poetry for the rest of us. I’ve been down this road when I complained of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and Pound’s later poetry, poems so obscure that the average reader could never interpret them without spending more time reading criticism than actually reading the poems themselves.

Collins can afford to make fun of obscure poetry because he seldom writes it. If the average reader really pays attention to what’s being said, he will arrive at a pretty good understanding of any Collins’ poem I can remember, which is not to say, of course, that discussing the poem with other readers might not bring new understandings and greater appreciation of the poems.

Equally important, Collins makes his point with humor. I’m sure many poets would disagree with this criticism, but even they would have to admit that the poem is funny and that Collins is anything but heavy-handed in his criticism. Humor might well be a dominant characteristic of Collins’ poetry, a point I might not have been so aware of if I hadn’t come back to it in the middle of reading e.e. cummings and Ron Padgett.

Though I’ll have to admit that the ruts have become deeper as I’ve aged, I still read poetry as a means of allowing me to see my world in new ways, just the way reading Thomas Hardy’s poetry nearly fifty years ago forced me to see my world in ways I’d never imagined until then. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can deny that Collins’ attempts to appeal to a mass audience makes it less likely that he will fulfill that function for many of his readers.

I’m sure I’ll continue to buy Collin’s poetry as it appears because it’s a great investment for the amount of pleasure it brings, especially when you compare it to how much we pay for cable TV and how few shows seem as pleasurable as reading Collins’ poetry.

4 thoughts on “Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry

  1. A very fair assessment, Loren. I’m afraid I’ve always tended to dismiss Collins before as a little lightweight, but I think it’s time to reappraise. I’d definitely rather read his poems than watch most of the stuff on cable TV. The humour is refreshing and it’s far more difficult than it seems to write in this graceful, humorous style. It speaks for itself!

  2. Such a lovely tongue-in-cheek look at the world of poetry. Who hasn’t heard a poet preface a poem with explanations like this? It takes more genious and shows greater generosity to write in a clear manner than to write in egotistic highbrow. Clarity counts.

  3. I really like this poem. It chimes with much that I feel about contempoary poetry. Perhaps it is unfair to imply that all modernist and post-modernist poetry is filled with obscurist nonsense but much of it is! I used to subscribe to a popular poetry journal over here until I became completely bored by the struggle to understand the bulk of poems in there. Now, maybe I’m just a moron but if you take a wonderful poet like Hardy or, more recently, RS Thomas, you need a degree in Classics to understand them bu thery still make you see the world through new eyes. THAT is good poetry. It should communicate directly, without the need of a complete Oxford Dictionary to hand. Having said all of this, I adore Blake and his ‘Prophetic Works’ can be a bit mind boggling!

    What it gets down to is that being clever for a higher purpose is fine but being clever for its own sake is wasting everybody’s time.

What do you think?