Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Poems of the Day - 2

At Poetry Daily, we find two new poems by Billy Collins, 'January in Paris', and 'Divorce'. The second of these is barely worth mentioning, playing on every cliché in the marriage/divorce book. The first poem is typical Collins, but not Collins at his best. He has a great idea: Valéry’s abandoned poems roam the early morning streets of Paris, and along comes a writer… The best section comes in stanzas 5-7 but, as often happens with Collins poems these days, the build-up is too long (and in this case not particularly funny or imaginative). After S8 we get a pointless (and no doubt unfair) description of Valéry, and the poem rumbles to an entirely predictable conclusion - whatever the appearances, Valéry is proved correct (is the 'completion' of the "gorgeous orphan" also the death of her? - the cigarette as smoking gun, together with the 'bed', 'head' and unspoken 'dead' rhyme - or is it just a post-coital cigarette?. Either way, the narrator is smug about it, as smug as Collins depicts Valéry, come to think of it). Collins is well capable of surprising a reader, even those critical of him, but not with this poem. A shame really, because I feel he could have done far better with his idea. 1½/6.

Over at No Tell Motel, Kim Gek Lin Short continues her angel’s datebook with Ms. Chatterley. The angel tells us about her loss of faith, her attempts to cover up what felt unacceptable, her efforts to tame herself into following the party line (all that symbolism about cutting wild strands of hair etc). So she no longer has spiritual aspirations. And she’s an angel! Oh, the postmodern irony… The problem with all of this is that the poem is a giant cliché – child brought up to believe denies her true self until finally the light dawns and she becomes a free secular woman. The image of the mirror and the back-story regarding the father are left for the reader to interpret, but form no meaningful context. How do they relate to spiritual aspirations? – you, dear reader, must do the guesswork. The final phrase about spelling out words for the dead is intriguing – but what words? That’s where you come in again, dear reader. Your job is to fill the gaps. As a reader, I don’t mind bringing my imagination to a poem, but the poem must have resonance within itself for that encounter to become more than an exercise. Here, despite the funny line about parking cars on a Sunday and the superficial oddity of some of the images, the poem follows a predictable path. 1½/6.

I have a wide and varied taste in poetry. I often like stuff posted at these sites. Maybe tomorrow…


Eternal Summer said...

You're so self-satisfied giving Billy Collins two thumbs down.

The last laugh is his, though: his newest book is the number-one selling poetry book on Amazon, and it isn't even out yet.

Rob said...

Not self-satisfied, eternal summer, just giving my honest opinion, as a reader.

Sales and quality have no relationship to one another.

Anonymous said...

Having both:

"the ones he never finished but abandoned"


"beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned"

is pretty lazy. The window-dressing of French stuff also doesn't ring true. Giving a potted biog of Valéry suggests that readers won't know who he is, which gives some indication of his intended audience.


Rob said...

Maybe. I think the reason for the potted biog of Valéry is to say, "Hey, this guy thought he was a big shot!" That condescending "if you please". BC often likes to tear down literary icons. Perhaps one day someone will write a poem containing such lines as:

"Billy Collins, best-selling poet of his time,
Professor of Poetry at ________ University,
and a Poet Laureate of the USA if you please"

Or perhaps no one will.

Claire Askew said...

@ eternal summer - the whole exercise of taking time to essentially pick holes in other people's writing (ie, literary criticism!) is rather self-satified, but we all do it. Some people just do it with less conviction!
(I also don't think BC necessarily values sales above good reviews. But then I suppose in a way, bestseller-status is a pretty good review in itself...)

and on that note, Rob - if millions of people will buy it (even if it's poetry!) it certainly has a "quality" of some kind!!

Poor BC seems to encounter criticism wherever he goes. I'm not saying that's what this post is (giving your views of the stuff you've read recently is a good idea... though I can't say I love the marks-out-of-five system), I've just read a lot of anti-Collins rhetoric recently, and so much of it is just based on disapproval or even resentment of his massive success. I'm not sure he can ever reach some of "those critical of him", which is a shame - some of his stuff is pure gold.

Rob said...

Claire - I think poems like American Sonnet, Nostalgia and various others are good poems. I don't think this poem is in the same league. In fact, I don't like it at all.

I disagree that any quality at all is conferred by sales. Collins's good work is good irrespective of how many books fly off the shelves.

claire askew said...

Oh no I know, I was being daft really. I just meant that if people will buy something in droves, the person who produces it must be doing something right, even if it's just generating good PR. I wasn't necessarily applying that to Collins!

I think 'Marginalia' is my favourite of his, although it's a bit long-winded. It's a great idea... that's the thing with him. He has such brilliant ideas, but sometimes you're left feeling he could have done so much more with them. I think that's the case here.

Steven Waling said...

I can't say I've ever found a poem by Billy Collins that was any good, personally. It's just full of the kind of dinner-party cleverness and smugness that goes down well in people who think poetry is a nice diversion from real life.

Rob said...

Heh. Now why doesn't it surprise me that you don't like BC's poetry, Steven?

I think he has written some good poems, but they tend to get lost among the mass of formulaic stuff.