Musings, Nits, and Praises: Polarizing Laureate

Musings, Nits, and Praises

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Polarizing Laureate

No contemporary poet is as polarizing as Billy Collins. To some avid supporters, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate is the quintessential "everyman" poet, bringing accessibility and wit to the obfuscatory world of contemporary poetry. To his detractors, he's a banal hack whose popularity threatens to spread like a literary pandemic, killing complexity and good taste.

The truth is he's a talented poet who, when he's at his best, possesses the ability to engage readers with subtle, perspicacious observations sometimes embedded in humor, but his work lacks a consistent spark and sometimes reeks of self-absorption. For a reader who believes a good poem is tantamount to chewing on glass, Collins' work is trite and spiritless. However, for a reader who prefers a metaphorical tap on the shoulder to a punch in the face, Collins' best work--"The Dead," "The Art of Drowning," "Nostalgia," "The Best Cigarette" to name a few--will prove poignant and enjoyable.

The trouble with his latest collection, "The Trouble with Poetry," is that his best work is in short supply. Throughout his career as a champion of accessible poetry, Collins has often found something extraordinary in the ordinary. Unfortunately, with this book he explores everyday experiences in rather hackneyed, unimaginative language, leaving many of the poems incredibly dull. For example, here's a short poem called "Carry":

I want to carry you
and for you to carry me
the way voices are said to carry over water.

Just this morning on the shore,
I could hear two people talking quietly
in a rowboat on the far side of the lake.

They were talking about fishing,
then one changed the subject,
and, I swear, they began talking about you.

Collins has always exuded a light, nonchalant tone, which he has likely developed through years of honing he's craft, but I question whether this poem (or some others in the new book) took any longer to write than it takes someone to scrawl a lewd remark into a bathroom stall. "The Trouble with Poetry" is the literary equivalent of a mediocre album by an ordinarily excellent band--a few really good songs, a few duds, but mostly songs you forget two minutes after they end.

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