The Trouble With Poetry (New Year’s Resolution, Book Twenty)

I am not, normally, a fan of Billy Collins. But he read at the Folger Shakespeare Library and I just don’t miss those.

Actually, he read at the church across the street (Lutheran Church of the Reformation – for the bigger draws, they set up next door and we listen prayerfully from the pews). This will be important later.

So, he read. And he’s better than his reputation. He has built this aww shucks reputation, the poet for people who don’t like poetry because it is too stuffy. He was unashamed about writing a good deal of comic poetry, but, perhaps emboldened by the academic and literate nature of the hosts, spoke deeply about a great many poets, including non-stuffy, difficult poets.

When I got up the front of the line to have my book signed, he took a moment with me. He looked at me and asked whether it bothered me, holding the poetry reading in the church. I said no. But I wished I’d added, did it bother you? Perhaps he looked at me and felt he recognized a (slightly) aging, anti-religious anarchist. But I can’t but think that he was, beneath his Garrison Keilor-esque poetic image, a bit of an anarchist himself. That he was bothered by it and that he thought I would understand. Missed opportunity, I reckon.

The Trouble with Poetry was better than I expected (though it’s unlikely to go on my ‘best loved books’ shelf). It was also darker than I expected.

A mood of quiet alienation, of feeling uncomfortably separated from one’s fellow man, abounded. Death came up not infrequently (three poems struck me in particular: ‘Bereft,’ which said I liked listening to you today at lunch/as you talked about the dead,/the luck dead you called them,/citing their freedom from rent and furniture – which poem went to outline a sort of dislocation with the objects of this world; ‘Flock’ which opened with an epigram noting that it is said that each Gutenberg bible required the skins of 300 sheep to produce, which is to say, that 300 living animals had to die to make it; and finally ‘Building with Its Face Blown Off’ about a war zone).

There is some of Collins’ (signature?) comedy, but not much, and tinged with sadness and failure.

Also, as you might expect from the title, too much poetry about writing poetry. I can’t think of another art form so obsessed with creating art about the particulars of the creation of that particular art form. I might suggest that this, more than stuffiness, is holding back contemporary poetry. It’s frankly too much and poets, in general, need to cut it out. Yes, a poem about poetry every once in a while is fine, but I counted half a dozen in this volume and a quick perusal of poetry mags will easily find you more.

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