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.

Billy Collins’ “Three Wishes”

Usually after I've chosen a poem I want to talk about I search the net for a copy of that poem, hoping I won't have to type it out from scratch or worry whether I'm giving readers one more reason not to buy a book because they can find the poems online.

I'm surprised how often I find poems online and am often delighted when I can also gain new insights into the poem. Today when I searched for a copy of Collins' "The Three Wishes" I found not only a copy of the poem but an interesting interview with him.

THE THREE WISHES

Because he has been hungry for days,
the woodsman wishes for a skillet of hot sausages.
And because she is infuriated at his stupidity,
his lack of vision, shall we say,

his wife wishes the skillet would stick to his nose.
And so the last wish must also be squandered
by asking the genie to please
remove the heavy iron pan from the poor man's face.

Hovering in the smoke that wafts up
from his exotic green bottle,
the genie knew all along the couple
would never escape their miserable lot,

the cheerless hovel, the thin dog in the corner,
cold skillet on a cold stove,
and we knew this too, looking down from
the cloud of a sofa into the world of a book.

The man is a fool, it is easily said.
He could have wished for a million gold coins,
as his wife will remind him hourly
for the rest of their rueful lives,

or a million golden skillets
if he had a little imaginative flair,
and that is the cinder of truth
the story wishes to place in one of our shoes.

Nothing can come from nothing,
I nod with the rest of the congregation.
Three wishes is three wishes too many,
I mutter piously as I look up from the story.

But every time I think of it
all I ever really feel, besides a quiver
of sympathy for the poor woodsman,
is a gnawing hunger for sausages –

a sudden longing for a winter night,
a light snow falling outside,
my ax leaning by the door,
my devoted heavyset wife at the stove,

and a skillet of sizzling sausages,
maybe some green peppers and onions,
and for my seventh and final wish,
a decent bottle of Italian -- no, wait, make that Chilean red.

Like most people I've heard or read this folk tale many a time and will have to admit that most of the time I haven't gone beyond the "cinder of truth" Collins refers to. In retrospect, it's hard not to see the woodsman, fisherman, etc. as "foolish." Anyone who can't make better wishes than me must be foolish. Right?

And, yes, being a man it's hard not to sympathize with the woodsman whose "wife will remind him hourly/ for the rest of their rueful lives." Does anyone really imagine that even if the woodsman had wished for a million gold coins that he wouldn't still have to endure his wife's complaints?

What's more, I've gotten up on more than one cold Sunday morning with a sudden longing for link sausage fresh out of the skilled rather than Eggs Benedict, Dutch Baby Pancake, or even Huevos Ranchero. You don't have to be a hardy woodsman to work up a hardy appetite, after all, or there would be a lot less Denny's serving breakfast every morning.

Maybe in the end simple wishes simply met are better wishes than fanciful dreams of immense wealth that come at a far greater cost than most of us can ever imagine.

Certainly much of Billy Collins' appeal as a poet is his uncommon, ordinary sense. He makes us see our everyday world more clearly than we would otherwise see it. As he suggests in the above-mentioned interview, he hopes to make us appreciate ever day a little more than we would without his poetry. That's not a bad dream, but neither is it one that is likely to change the world.

Billy Collins’ “First Reader”

Personally, I find it difficult to decide exactly how I feel about Billy Collins' poetry, though the quote on the cover of Sailing Alone Around the Room that "It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment" seems spot on.

It's impossible not to "like" much of what is written here – I marked seven poems that I "liked" in the first 83 pages, selections from poems written between 1988 and 1995. That's a respectable number of poems, but when I thought back on them I couldn't remember what a single one of them was about.

Perhaps too many merely remind me of things I already knew, but have unfortunately managed to forget. There's little here that reaches out and really grabs me, but I'd much rather read these than read the morning paper or watch TV, and I'm sure I'd be a better person for reading his book and foregoing the others.

Forced to pick a favorite in the first half of the book, this would be it:

FIRST READER

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustrations of their neighborhood,
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting,
"Look!" pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Part of what appealed to me in this poem wouldn't appeal to anyone too young to have been exposed to the Dick and Jane books as their first reader. The opening paragraph brought back a rush of pleasant memories, though I wondered why Spot wasn't here.

And, yes, most of the other characters are ones who introduced me to a world I might never have known without reading. Of course, I didn't realize at the time that I was giving up the ability to experience something more directly when I spent time exploring these literary worlds.

Worse yet, one begins to suspect that what we see is often determined by what we expect to see, and too often that expectation comes from reading rather than from our own experience.

Of course, this idea is not a new one, but it is one that we all too easily forget when we get caught up in reading books. Collins' poems are often reminders like this, and sometimes its nice to be reminded of important things that have gotten lost in our hectic daily lives.