Art Over Easy ...

This writer, it must be said, is not unhip to the problem; his final stanza acknowledges, "But this is already too much." He then exits with a list of images that flesh out his summary remark, that "Life is rushing by like a mad, swollen river." It's a simile typical of Collins in being both commonplace and readily replaceable. Not much would be lost here if life rushed by like a runaway train or like a Derby thoroughbred."Victoria's Secret" might, on a good night, stir up a bit of group hilarity (though at the reading I attended the mirth faded after the first couple stanzas), and we are all grateful for any amount of harmless laughter. My point is that the humor doesn't lead to fresh insight or observation: The poem doesn't go anywhere except on to another species of cliché--the lugubrio-comical (to coin a Polonius-like categorization) as well as the merely ludicrous. The standard Collins poem also calls for the presentation of liberal-arts, and especially Englishmajor, credentials--but with an aggressively flippant, superior-to-all-that-stuffy-literary-stuff attitude. Readers and listeners presumably (given the sales record, given the graph of laughter at his readings) adore this opportunity to feel in the know after being handed the easiest possible references, and also enjoy feeling superior to any and all great dead authors. In Sailing Alone we come across sophomoric sendups of Petrarch, William Wordsworth, Stevens--and notable others. One of the more memorable examples is a signature piece from Picnic, Lightning: "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes." Here we find a liberal sprinkling of Collins's pronoun of preference and plenty of puerile humor, together with the use of a famous author as both source of authority and object of conquest. It begins with the speaker / seducer recounting how he removed Dickinson's "tippet made of tulle," then her "long white dress," then released various "Catches, straps, and whalebone stays." The striptease progresses through a series of unrelated similes and metaphors--in a manner typical of this writer who seldom carries through on a conceit (e.g., Dickinson's body is compared in rapid succession to an iceberg and to a swan). Unlike another striptease poem, John Donne's "Going to Bed" (Elegy 15), in which a man speaks his frank longing and cheerfully presents his naked vulnerability before his mistress, Collins's verse remains self-protective and cold. After six stanzas, it ends with this: What I can tell you is it was terribly quiet in Amherst that Sabbath afternoon, nothing but a carriage passing the house, a fly buzzing in a windowpane. So I could plainly hear her inhale

when I undid the very top hook-and-eye fastener of her corset and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed the way some readers sigh when they realize that Hope has feathers, that reason is a plank, that life is a loaded gun that looks right at you with a yellow eye. Constructed upon "What I can tell you" / "What I can't tell you" rhetorical turns, the description depends--perhaps too heavily--on the assumption that every virginal creature is just waiting for Billy Collins to get her out of her clothes. And what risible clothes: we get to snicker at romance-novel "mother-of-pearl / buttons down the back, / so tiny and numerous that it takes forever." She's so laughably premodern, that Dickinson, so repressed, so ready for ravishment. By quoting from her most anthologized poems (the carriage from "Because I could not stop for Death," the fly from "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died"), Collins gives us to know his literary credentials--we know now that he's read what's assigned on an undergraduate syllabus--and compliments listeners / readers on theirs. By quoting more from Dickinson at the end, Collins may of course be attempting to acknowledge her powerful strangeness, but this brand of homage feels more like appropriation. Dickinson, meanwhile, remains perfectly capable of defending herself, and does not need more than a single, brief quotation ("reason is a plank") in order to make her bedroom intruder stand, somewhat pathetically, stripped before us. Still, the poem is a little bit ugly, isn't it? It smacks of unexamined aggression, which makes it resemble a rape. The listener at a reading who joins in the laughter (as I did, though I stopped not long after the "tippet made of tulle") is likely to be left with an unpleasant aftertaste. The final main ingredient in the Collins verse kitchen is the Romantically pitched you've-justgotta-know-it's-a-poem ending. Interestingly,Collins has clung to this nineteenth-century practice despite expressed antipathy for Romantic poetry. ("The Romantics killed off humor, and they also eliminated sex," he asserts in a recent Newsweek interview--a remark that overlooks, among other Romantic exuberance, the comic brio and sexual worldliness of Byron but that does shed light on Collins's defiant embracement of the silly with the salacious.) He favors the resounding pentameter ending--or, in contemporary style, the approximate pentameter--replete with timetested references to nature and travel, as in these final lines from assorted poems in The Art of Drowning: "... of a road we can't help traveling together."

"... lost for a while in the home of the rain." "... and to the vast, windless spaces between the stars." "... offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light." "... and pick out the dot of a hawk lost in the blue." "... watching the light on the water, light in the air." "... and a passing cloud darkens my page." "... as wide awake as I will ever be." And these, from Picnic, Lightning (I've bracketed the extrapentameter first syllables of each line): "... as one hour sweeps into the next." "... deep into the glittering white snow." "... as the moon climbs high into the night." "... [or real,] floating on the darkness of the water." "... [even] the heavy, leafy trees along the shore." "Across the pale parabolas of joy"--but no, that's P. G. Wodehouse's toss-off in Leave It to Psmith. Not every one of Collins's conclusions is iambic and determinedly poetical, but he can generally be counted on to exit with a flourish, the operatic tenor in a velvet cape. In his new poems, that cape still occasionally swirls on its way out the door (e.g., "with no end or name, some boundless province of water"). In these more mortality-obsessed verses, which also have showy references to Asian poetry and to jazz artists Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, he seems a little less preoccupied with glancing over his Anglo-American literary shoulder--although Petrarch's "crazy tights" (noted above) do make their appearance in this most recent group, as do "coffee and oranges," lifted again, in a different poem, from Stevens. On the whole, though these new productions include the humor ingredient, they drag a bit, mechanical and weary. In a passage of "Pavilion" that's fresher and less erratic in its figurative language than usual, Collins admits to growing tired of his own bag of tricks: I find a word in a dictionary and copy it onto the back of an envelope, the piano heavy in the corner,

the fan turning slowly overhead. Such is life in this pavilion of paper and ink where a cup of tea is cooling, where the windows darken then fill with light. But I have had enough of it-the slope of paper on the desk, books on the floor like water lilies, the jasmine drying out in its pot. In fact, I am ready to die, ready to return as something else, like a brown-and-white dog with his head always out the car window. Then maybe, if you were still around, walking along a street in linen clothes, a portfolio under your arm, you would see me go by, my eyes closed, wet nose twitching, my ears blown back, a kind of smile on my long dark lips. The goofy, familiar canine-cruising-the-highway image is appealing, even charming. The reader-glimpsed as that dressed-for-summer-success "you," drifting on the raft of his single stanza among a sea of first-person pronouns--is invited to smile back at the reincarnated dog/poet who has actually--get it?--taught an old dog a new trick. And it's a good bet that most of us will smile back. After all, he's man's best friend--or is he? 2.

Billy Collins has a reputation as an unusually reader-friendly poet; and that's certainly the case, in the way a jokester/charmer strikes everyone as a friendly sort of fellow, or in the way we say "user-friendly" about a piece of computer software, meaning that it doesn't require too much of us. But if we ask whether Collins demonstrates consistent affection, good will, and regard for his reader? It's easy to see his ambivalence toward poetic predecessors, his way of biting the hand that feeds him lines. What about his living audience?...

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