Friday, June 26, 2009

Billy Collins wants poetry to be transparent

Billy Collins, like Kanye West, is often the top selling artist in his field (although in the music world that actually means something). In a recent interview he spoke on why people don't read much poetry: "It's not the public's fault. There's an awful lot of bad poetry out there. I'd say about 87 percent of the poetry in America isn't worth reading." And also said the vague statement that "Poetry should be transparent".

You might be thinking "wait, I think I read that interview a year ago". No no, he just says that every single time he's interviewed. It's basically all he ever says about poetry. One of the many reasons probably that he doesn't have a blog or give many interviews.

Now, of course he doesn't name any names, give any examples of poems he doesn't think are worth reading, or even talk about what it is he thinks "transparency" is. Which of course allows any admirer of Collins to just give up any time they come across a poem that challenges them in some way. (funny thing, it wouldn't have annoyed me if he'd said 90% of poetry isn't worth reading. Saying 87 makes it sound like "oh, yeah, I've just finished reading all poems, and the final statistic turned out to be...")

I'm wondering though, what the big difference is here between Collins statement and Kanye West's identifying as a "proud non-reader". One difference is that Kanye was only talking about himself, and he's not a big figure in the feild he was dissing. On the other hand, Collins is seen as more of a teacher and mentor (I mean, he was poet laureate), and he's telling readers not to try very hard.

Contrast this with Kanye (whatever you think of his music), who is a relentless advocate and promoter for an enormous amount of talented artists, younger and more obscure, even does stuff to promote artists that the average hip hop listener wouldn't ever have listened to. Between promoting other artists on his blog, producing for other people, and being featured on other artist's tracks, he spends more time promoting other people's work than he does his own. Say what you want about his enormous (and annoying) ego, his self obsession has nothing on Billy Collins.
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Was just thinking, Billy Collin's statements give a disturbing insight into an already disturbing poem of his: Taking Emily Dickinson's Clothes Off. This is a poem about a creepy older dude (played by Collins) removing the clothing and underwear of a younger (and ridiculously better) 19th century poet. We're not told whether she wants this in any way, as Emily is not given any kind of voice or character in the poem. Also, we know from Collin's statements on poetry, that this poem cannot, in any way, be about him reading her poetry.

For instance, if it were about reading her poetry, then it would be about reading a very complex and multi-layered poet (as Dickinson is of course):

The complexity of women's undergarments
in the nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.
Billy Collins' says that poetry should be accessible, "easy to enter, like a building". Which is the opposite of saying "poetry should be harsh and terrifying, like the arctic". The metaphor here paints the picture of an arctic explorer committing suicide on an iceberg. All that of course sounds similar to the experience of reading Dickinson, however, is the exact opposite of what Collins has consistently and explicitly stated that a poem should be.

And remember, this poem isn't about Emily Dickinson taking his clothes (or his head) off. This is yet another reason it can't be about reading Dickinson. In Billy Collin's view of poetry the reader shouldn't have to do anything. If it's a bad experience, it's all the poet's fault. All the reader need do is lie back and think of England, or you know, whatever the poem happens to be about.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Hilarious. Good one.