I went to see Billy Collins read at Tulane. I am not a poet, and my poetry knowledge comes purely through MFA contacts and fellow bloggers Trina and LEW. Before the MFA my poetry world consisted of a few Brit Lit survey courses. (Although hey, I hear Keats is back in style).
Somehow, through literary osmosis, I know that Collins is one of two poets in America who can draw a crowd. (The other being Maya Angelou, who read at Tulane last year). I have somehow also gathered that Collins isn’t the most revered of poets among poets.
To put this in perspective, I did not go see BC at the Superdome. The crowd consisted not of panty-tossing coeds, but the usual universitypes out for a rip-chortling, rabbinical chin-scratching good time. I did spot some rather glossy, 5 by 7 foot, full color vinyl posters around campus. And McAlister Auditorium was mostly full, although the balcony was empty. Me, I was there out of snark-based curiousity. Is Billy Collins pooh-poohed because he is popular? Or because he isn’t a poet of true substance?
Collins is very glib, very dry and very funny. I chortled more than once. He plays the straight man without fail. I heard that Collins was once introduced by Bill Murray. That seems about right. They share a similar deadpan approach. His style (not politics) also reminded me of William F. Buckley, who I saw speak once in Amherst, Massachusetts. Buckley, all rapier witted, slashed earnest hippie liberals with one hand, while penning Republican manifestos with the other. I’m a hemophiliac liberal but Buckley impressed me.
Collins is accessible. I have to admit, having sat through (okay, let’s say it, endured) more than one incomprehensible poetry reading, there is something to be said for this. He told stories in between poems by way of introduction, a technique I personally like. For better or for worse, he was willing say “this poem is about…”
Whoops, snark moment: He wore out the transition, “this poem is about.”
As to whether the poems are “deceptively” easy or just easy I don’t know. The Tulane professor who introduced Collins claimed to have spent an hour with his class picking apart the assonance. O, assonance! The introduction struck me as a mite defensive. Nobody ever would ever introduce Yeats, “You know we spent a really, really long time on this! And it was really deep! Really!”
Afterward, my writing group and I noticed that more than one poem included a stone bird bath, a bowl of pears, blue-and-white striped wall paper, and picture of a cow on the wall. We hoped that Collins wasn’t repeating himself, but rather, engaging what we term in literary circles a motif. But we weren’t entirely convinced. We laughed over this vision of Collins sitting at his kitchen table simply writing about what was in front of him. Ha! Ha! smirks Collins as he pens another poem between espressos. And that’s the checkered dishtowel that won me poet laureate! Twice.
That night, via discussions with people on the marble steps and what I heard of the Q & A, I gathered another commonly expressed Collins viewpoint: “at least people are coming out to see poetry.”
"At least" doesn't seem very flattering. Although I admit this was my first poetry reading in a while. Maybe we do need gateway poetry. Can Collins help us on the way to harder stuff?