Fish in a Barrel: The Case Against Billy Collins
I hate Billy Collins.
I imagine he would say with a six-figure smile that I'm way at the back of a long line of people who hate him.
Billy can take heart in the fact that because so many people hate him, it is becoming fashionable in some circles to claim to like him, but this is a transparent contrarianism born of cocktail party boredom and too much boxed wine on an empty stomach.
If you fall into this category, I suggest you eat some crackers and pull your hipster-doofus self together before your date leaves with the guy wearing the two-tone smoked-glass aviators, the neckerchief and the Errol Flynn mustache.
I'll admit that Collins' poems are not teeth-grindingly bad in the way that former "people's poet" Rod McKuen's poems are bad. Most are technically sound, if barren of linguistic flair. A few even touch on complex ideas without pounding them flat as a reading of the Joint Congressional Report on Drying Paint. But in this age when mediocrities like Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, and that national provider of plasticine Italian food regularly cash checks with more zeros than a Manimal Fan Club convention, and when the Kardashian Sisters and Spencer Pratt are drawing any paychecks at all, the middle of the road seems a dangerous place to leave poetry laying about.
Generally, I believe that any poetry read by non-poets should be celebrated, but when that poetry comes with a road map, a waterproof Boy Scouts' Manual and its own Keep Off the Grass sign, the concept of poetry is stretched so thin as to be see-through. And that, I guess, is Collins' aim: poetry as toothless and mundane as a bran flakes commercial. I mean, accessibility is one thing, force feeding your readers as if you planned to cut out their livers for paté is another.
When Billy edited the Best American Poetry in 2006, he gave us a list of words and subjects that once he encountered in a poem, he would read no further. In itself, this is fine. We all have such lists and they cannot help but seem arbitrary to others. Heck, I agreed with the bulk of his list, but if you put your list of crimes against poetry in print, you should be pretty certain that you are not guilty of those infractions yourself. In a world that cranks out hypocrisy faster than it does greenhouse gases, poets are supposed to be the ones pointing it out, not adding to it.
Billy, giving the public what it wants is just dandy, being a man of the people is bully, calling out the ivory tower types is peachy, but self-serving demagoguery in the name of cleansing the temple does real and lasting harm to a medium you ostensibly love.
(Take note, Keillor).
It is only fair that I give Billy a chance at rebuttal, so below is a list of Collins' work available at your Harris County Public Library. Millions of people disagree with my assessment of his opinions and poetry (and I will be deeply disappointed if I don't hear from a few of them). I encourage you to decide for yourself.
The Art of Drowning /
Ballistics: Poems /
The Best Cigarette [CD] /
Nine Horses: Poems /
Questions About Angels: Poems /
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems /
The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems /
Comments, corrections, exhibitions of righteous spleen, brownie recipes and suggestions for future posts are always welcome. Thanks for reading.