By Gary Schmidgall
When I teach my Chaucer-to-Milton survey at Hunter College, I always begin with Billy Collins’ droll “The Trouble with Poetry” since I know there will be a lot of poetic trouble on my syllabus for today’s students — a gaudy bouquet of the flowers of rhetoric, like ecphonesis (exclamation, Shakespeare’s beloved “O”) or epizeuxis (repeating a word for emphasis, Lear’s famous five “nevers”).
But what frosts Collins is that “mostly poetry fills me with the desire to write more poetry.” It has a way of proliferating, like “guppies crowding the fish tank.” He reminds us that anyone who falls into the goofy pastime of writing poems is coming very late to a party that’s been going on a long time. Will the day come, he grimly wonders, “when we have compared everything in the world/ to everything else in the world.” And can we possibly avoid the temptation to break “into the poems of others with a flashlight and a ski mask” for inspiration? He calls himself and his fellow poets “an unmerry band of thieves … cut-purses, common shoplifters,” and toward poem’s end he confesses that he “stole” a metaphor in the poem from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose “little amusement park of a book” solaced him 50 years ago in the “treacherous halls of high school.”
CUNY proudly fêted Collins, a professor of English at Lehman College, when he was appointed to the first of two terms as Poet Laureate in 2001 and honored him with a Distinguished Professorship. An earlier volume, Sailing Alone Around the Room, was widely distributed under CUNY auspices, but he never took a proper bow in BookTalk. A fitting occasion for this is the appearance of his 10th volume, Aimless Love (Random House), which offers new poems and selected ones from his four previous collections.
How to sum it up? I could purloin “amusement park of a book,” since Collins is entertaining company. But the giddy excitements and whirlings of an amusement park are not quite apt; Collins’ whirlings are more cerebral and internal (at one point he defines himself as “the secretary of the interior”). How about a bemusement park? The characteristic Collins poem is positioned somewhere equidistant from “wry,” “quizzical” and “askance.” “Aimless Love,” the title poem, is typical: the perambulating poet falls in love with a wren, a dead mouse the cat brought in, a bowl of steaming broth. Then he interrupts:
But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
That (I assume) would be Cupid’s arrow, and we (like any poet worthy of the name) must be open and poised to “snap” love’s startling appearances in our daily lives. The poem ends as Collins begins to fall in love with a bar of lavender soap at a bathroom sink.
The double helix of earnestness and whimsy runs through Collins’ poetic DNA, as it does in “Obituaries,” in which he riffs on the odd pairings of people on obituary pages, “strange roommates” ascending two by two a Stygian “ark of death.” Arthur Godfrey/Man Ray and Ken Kesey/Dale Evans are his two examples. And he has a way of ripping off his lace collar of metaphorical whimsy and getting very plain: “I think what I am really saying is that language/ is better than reality.” That is the core principle for all poets.
I am a sucker for the way Collins often ricochets off his poetical forerunners. Wordsworth lurks behind “Lines Written in a Garden by a Cottage in Hereford-shire,” whose landscape includes some “half-shattered outdoor furniture” but “just the right combination of growth and neglect.”
In “Unholy Sonnet #1” we are told death should be very proud of how much room he takes up in a Donne concordance. The next time I teach “The Sun Rising,” I’m going to insist my students memorize it. Then I’ll assign Collins’ charming “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne,” with its high if puny praise for how much is packed into “the rooms of these three stanzas” (stanza is Italian for “room”).
As you know, a big man on my campus is Whitman, who wrote five poems on Lincoln. So I was pleased that he makes an appearance in a poem titled “Lincoln.” A sentence in a long biography about Lincoln’s face being ugly reminds Collins that “he became beautiful in the eyes of Walt Whitman.” Naturally, I approved immediately of a Poet Laureate who chooses to go by Billy, though I was thus shocked, shocked — epizeuxis— that he is William J. Collins in the Lehman directory.
Another running pleasure of Collins’ poems is the frequent glimpses into a poet’s lepidopterous life. “Lincoln” begins with an idea “that just flew out of my head” and “did not leave a trace/ not a contrail in the sky.” The discovery of a little ode to a steamroller by Marianne Moore produces in this “serious student of cartoons” a vision of the flattened poetess “hung out to dry/ on a clothesline.” Sometimes his poetic epiphanies come “not like a bolt of lightning/ but more like a heavy bolt of cloth.” Collins ponders writing a poem “about people who think they know what I should be writing poems about,” and in “Suggestion Box” he does. If there’s a persona behind the poems, it is a bit rumpled, laid-back, unpretentious. This is captured in “If This Were a Job I’d Be Fired,” in which the poet wakes up “with nothing” to write about. But at the bottom of the page he’s pleasantly surprised:
…well, look at this, five quatrains—
better than nothing for a weekday,
I thought, as I headed merrily for the door.
More haunting is “My Unborn Children,” a retrospect on the “several hundred” poems that “failed to be born.”
“Envoy” is in the long envoi tradition of poets saying good-bye to their progeny, but its last lines are decidedly unpaternal:
stay out as late as you like,
don’t bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can.
In “Poetry,” he perhaps slips in his motto: “We are busy doing nothing — / and all we need is an afternoon, / a rowboat under a blue sky.” A view worthy of that old loafer Walt.
There are also frequent hints that Collins has paid his dues in Creative Writing workshops. “Adage” skewers a raft of clichés from emperor’s clothes to frying pan to early bird. “Tension” begins with an epigraph — “Never use the word suddenly just to create tension” — and then gaily runs it ragged (“you suddenly opened a can of cat food”). In “A Word About Transitions,” poets are told to avoid them. “Secondly should not be placed/ at the opening of your second stanza,” he says in his second stanza. Furthermore, notwithstanding, and nevertheless are also forbidden.
Collins seems most comfortable with poems that are 25-35 lines long, and they often unfurl in casual, unrhymed terza rima. One of his rare epigrams makes one wish he had slipped into that straitjacket more often, since the genre is so apt for humor. Here’s “Divorce”:
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks.
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
Collins rarely assumes the Poet Laureate pose, but the very last poem in Aimless Love certainly fills the bill. In fact, he read “The Names” before a joint session of Congress near the first anniversary of 9/11, and it is dedicated to the victims and their survivors. The haunting, surreal poem journeys from A to Z through the list of names (“let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound”): “Names written in the air/ And stitched into the cloth of the day.” The last lines: “Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory./ So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”