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The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, by Billy Collins
When a man's fancy turns to whimsy
"In the morning I ate a banana like a young ape and worked on a poem called 'Nocturne'. In the afternoon I opened the mail with a short kitchen knife and when dusk began to fall I took off my clothes, put on 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' and soaked in a claw-footed bathtub." So, with assorted line and verse breaks, begins "The Long Day" by Billy Collins. He closes his eyes and thinks of the alphabet: "If the British call z zed, I wondered, why not call b bed and d dead?"
For those of us who still operate in what is now called "the plain style", there may be hope in the poetry of "the planet's most popular living poet", who is nothing if not plain. Collins is so plain he seems to stand behind a curtain while his poems write themselves. When they are finished, he comes forward to take a bow and everyone loves him because he is so debonair. But whimsy is whimsy.
If anyone takes to heart Coleridge's distinction between fancy and the imagination, it isn't Collins; he seems to be on a mission to rehabilitate fancy into the lyric arsenal. His first poem, "You, Reader" is fine until his eye lights on a salt and pepper pot and the twee, New York School side of his brain wonders "if they had become friends/after all these years/or if they were still strangers to one another/like you and me..." Here nothing is brought into the depths of the real except literary frailty and this is too often used as a subject in itself. The strange thing is that his vaunted feebleness isn't more off-putting. You get used to it. You get to like it because it so clearly follows the movement of his mind. He can't help being a bit of a drip; he's a poet, after all.
To read Collins is to sit down with him each morning in his kitchen in northern Westchester county, New York, or outside in his "rough chair", in what you feel is a disciplined cultivation of his talent. In a sense, the poetry is in the discipline; these are diary entries from the mind's present tense. Since there is no hiding in this world, we might as well start from where we are and see what happens. In the end, what these poems are about is writing, never the greatest subject.
A central poem is about a special pair of glasses he has to "send away for", which filter out "the harmful sight of you". If you can take this you'll take Collins en bloc. Eventually, he has to take them off to sleep, praying that, you guessed it, "I will not see you in my dreams". It's like a children's story of "The Magic Spectacles", except that, being grown-up, we ask ourselves what it means and can come up with nothing but sympathy for the man, because his glasses are so obviously his poems. Move forward 40 pages to the title poem: "The trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry/And how will it ever end?"
Perhaps, after all, it is good humour that draws the eye so agreeably down the page in his company. In these spontaneous, dopey effusions, there really isn't any need for revision on behalf of good taste or Colridgean "imagination" - only for obedience to the moment and whatever it throws up. If whimsy triumphs, the poem will at least represent the movement of a mind and openness will have been achieved, never mind instant disposabilty.
Hugo Williams's 'Dear Room' is published by Faber
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