Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Charming Billy

In our SPL discussion of Billy Collin's The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, J Johnstone, our group facilitator (doesn't that sound dry and unpoetic! - maybe we should call her "our muse") - presented us with a poetic response to the book by a critic from The New York Times. I think it is excellent - so am including it here:

Charming Billy
Review by David Orr

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you found out
that I wrote this instead of you

is how the first poem begins
in the new book by Billy Collins
called "The Trouble with Poetry"

It is a typical Collins beginning -
a good natured wave
across the echoing gulf that stretches

between writer and reader
as it to suggest
the poem itself exists

in that uncertain, cloud-strewn gap,
and we, as readers,
are very nearly poets ourselves,

even if we are unlikely
to receive recognition as such
in the form or a generous grant

from the Guggenheim Foundation,
which is not to say
we would turn one down, mind you.

Anyway: it is a tribute
to the former Poet Laureate
that he is able to make us believe,

despite our anxious response to poetry,
that we are participating
in each Billy Collins poem,

and that the humorous touches-
like calling a book of poetry
"The Trouble With Poetry"-

are a kind of knowing salute,
one writer to another.
It is a technical achievement

all too easy to underestimate,
and it involves a special sensitivity
to the nature of reading, of hearing,

which is perhaps the reason
so many Billy Collins poems
are about the process of poetry,

as when, in his poem "Workshop",
he makes the poem itself
a history of its own unfolding,

a strategy that appears again here
in slightly altered form
as the opening to "The Introduction":

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

a suave parody
of the nervous preambles
one hears at so many poetry readings,

and exactly the kind of beginning
that allows us to chuckle gently
as a convention is tweaked,

almost as we chuckle gently
in anticipation when we realise
that the book review we've been reading

is about to turn the corner,
and begin placing a writer's shortcomings
alongside his virtues,

by observing, for instance,
that Billy Collins too often relies
on the same blandly ironic tone

and the same conversational free verse,
loosely organized in tercets
or the occasional quatrain
when an extra line jogs onto the page,

or that his poems often begin to well
and then spiral down
into unsurprising images

like exhausted birds
unable to stand for anything
beyond the simple fact of exhaustion,

or that, most important,
he is often humorous
without actually being funny,

a difference that depends largely
on a writer's willingness
to let his violent, comic sensibility

turn its knives on the reader,
on the poem,
and on poetry itself,

which may seem like an odd complaint,
given Collin's reputation
for teasing our stuffy poetic traditions.

But the teasing this writer does
is harmless, really, and contrary
to what some critics have suggested,

the problem with his work
is not that it is disrespectful,
but that it is not disrespectful enough;

it never cracks wise
to the teacher's face
but meekly returns to its desk,

lending itself with disappointing ease
to the stale imagery
of teachers, desks and wisecracking.

In the end, what we need
from a poet with Collin's talent
is not a good-natured wave

from writer to reader,
or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;
what we need is to be drawn

high into the poem's cloud-filled air
and allowed to fall
on rocks real enough to hurt.

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