Friday, June 05, 2009

Collins and Keillor

Over at "First Thoughts" they are discussing the poetry of Billy Collins:

Joe Carter
Micah Mattix
Sally Thomas

I don't really have much of an opinion on Billy Collins himself, but it seems a good occasion for a ramble. Let's start with this. Collins could do exactly what he does now if he were writing essays or novels. Take his "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House":

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

You could take the same thing and write it all together with no change, and it would be part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home:

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking. He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark that he barks every time they leave the house. They must switch him on on their way out.

And you will have lost nothing. It is a poem, in the most basic sense that it is crafted language for the sake of the language, but the differences between Billy Collins and (say) Garrison Keillor, setting aside topics, are entirely incidental. You could write prose and do the same thing. I want to insist that there's room for poets to do this; it can be a useful and valuable thing to do. It is nonsense to think that poets should only write in verse, because all of language is the poet's working material. But at this point we aren't doing anything distinctively poetic, where that is understood to be contrasted with the prosaic. I sometimes wonder if interest in Billy Collins as poetry is a symptom of something very wrong with our contemporary sense of language, in this sense: that is, one might have the temptation to think that to get what Collins gives you have to be writing something that's not prose. But as Collins is basically writing rhetorical, declamatory prose in narrow columns, this shows that we have no proper appreciation for the power and potential of prose.

This is true of much of contemporary poetry, especially what often goes by the name of 'free verse'. I've often heard it asked whether free verse is really poetry; of course it is. It would be a more serious question to ask whether free verse is distinctively verse. And I think in many cases it clearly is not: it is prosaic as well as poetic. For instance, if I were to take the previous few sentences and scatter them on the page for effect, that would be poetic, a crafting of language, whether people of good taste thought it a good crafting or not; that extra bit of crafting makes it an extra bit poetic, one might say. Or, at least, it could: Mallarmé would make it very poetic, because every bit of white space would do something. The placement itself was poetic. An advertiser placing words across the page might not: the placement might be for effect, but the effect have nothing to do with the language. Most free versers, I think, are somewhere in between, although nowhere in Mallarmé's league. Some of them are so far on the advertiser's side that the placement is the only thing interesting about what they have written. But that is neither here nor there. The point is that Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, while exquisite poetry, is not really verse. To have verse, you must have verses; verses are turns and returns of language, and to have returns at all the turns must be distinctive enough to be recognized when they come back. In formal verse, the turns and returns follow a set form. In free verse that is genuinely free verse the returns are not governed by this constraint. They surprise -- but they are still there.

Merely having verses is not enough to have verse, of course; even a freshman composition paper may have verses. The verses must be constitutive of what is being made, somehow -- and that 'somehow', while not infinitely forgiving, is nonetheless very affable. But much poetry is not verse, but prose; and Billy Collins writes poetry that is prose, at least, for all practical purposes. His line breaks are just prose thought-breaks, which is why it declaims well; it is an entirely arbitrary matter that he breaks it down on the page that way rather than letting it flow all the way across like water. And if you took away the little dams at the end of each line, letting each line flow into the other all the way across the page, you would find that in terms of language Billy Collins is a somewhat more eccentric Garrison Keillor. And you could scatter Garrison Keillor on the page and you would discover that Keillor writes poetry, too:

I'm not a storyteller, Stella,
but I impersonate one
and that is almost as good.

Storytelling is an intimate art,
practiced between people who know each other well,
and I've known some great ones,

a sculptor named Joe O'Connell
and my great-uncle Lew Powell
and the late Chet Atkins.

Chet was a true storyteller.
He blanched at the thought of doing it onstage,
but when he drove you around in his pickup truck,
he'd tell a whole string of stories,
some of them ribald,
about Nashville stars

and he imitated their voices beautifully
and he embroidered the stories beautifully
and, listening to him,
I just sat
and laughed
and wished we'd drive forever.

You can do this with Garrison Keillor all day. And, to reiterate, it really is poetry. But it's prosaic poetry. There is no verse to it, no turn and return, only the balanced phrase, the constructed clause, of a prose writer. Keillor does not magically become poetry by being scattered on the page; Collins would not magically cease to be poetry by being written across the page. They don't have the same style, but they are doing the same thing, and what they are doing is the poetic work of good prose. They just have different tastes in graphic design.

The purpose of this ramble was to ramble, not to answer Joe's question, but we have answered it nonetheless. Joe had asked,

In other words, is Billy Collins repackaging a form of slam poetry for literate yuppies or is he restoring an oral tradition that will open new audiences for contemporary poetry?

And the answer is that he is doing neither. You cannot restore what has always been here. We all laugh at Monsieur Jourdain, who spoke prose all his life and never knew it. But you and I are not much different; we have come across poetry, even spoken poetry, all our lives, and never knew it, either. One day we, like Monsieur Jourdain with prose, will recognize with delighted surprise that many things we did not recognize as poetry really are. We will, of course, be the more foolish-looking, for we had the word in hand, but could never remember what it meant, instead relying on little bits of folklore and half-formed feelings. We will be absurdly pleased to discover that poetry, really and truly, is the craft of making excellent language.

And the angels in the audience will laugh.