Does Billy Collins’s latest poetry collection leave readers laughing or frowning?
By William Logan
Poetry Media Service
Ballistics by Billy Collins. Random House, $24.00
Billy Collins is funny, everyone agrees. The birds agree, the bees agree, even the fish in the sea agree: Billy Collins is funny. Yet why do I feel, half an hour after closing a Billy Collins book, a sharp grinding in my stomach, as if I’ve eaten some fruit cake past its sell-by date? His wry, self-mocking poems wouldn’t hurt a fly—but they couldn’t kill a fly, either, even if they tried. Readers who have whetted their appetites for drollery on previous books may open Ballistics and be puzzled. Our Norman Rockwell of sly winks, and elbowing good humor, and straw-hatted, flannel-shirted American whimsy is no longer funny. Worse, some of his new poems take place in Paris.
Billy Collins’s method has been to borrow a dry nugget of fact or some mildly absurd observation and see how far he can go. Say you read that the people of Barcelona once owned an albino gorilla, or remember that Robert Frost said, “I have envied the four-moon planet,” or find yourself talking to a dog about the future of America. Why, the poem would almost write itself! Collins’s gift was to make the poem a little odder than you expected. The problem with his new book is that the ideas are still there, but the poems have lost their sense of humor. Here’s what happens to that gorilla:
These locals called him Snowflake,
and here he has been mentioned again in print
in the hope of keeping his pallid flame alive
and helping him, despite his name, to endure
in this poem where he has found another cage.
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—
no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.
There must be a lot of comic things to say about albino gorillas, things that don’t require sentimental guff with a twitch of self-pity.
Say you recall the day Lassie died, when, after you finished your farm chores and ate your oatmeal, you drove to town and scanned the books in Olsen’s Emporium—and what books they were! An anthology of the Cavalier poets, The Pictorial History of Eton College, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. Why, who knew? This is a send-up of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”—the book titles mock his purchase of New World Writing (as he said, “to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing”). But then what?
I’m leaning on the barn door back home
while my own collie, who looks a lot like her,
lies curled outside in a sunny patch
and all you can hear as the morning warms up
is the sound of the cows‘ heavy breathing.
And that’s it. This labored parody of O’Hara’s famous ending (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/ leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”) isn’t side-splitting at all. The premise has become just another excuse for softheaded mush—Collins doesn’t even get round to mentioning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Lassie was played by any number of dogs, that she was male (because males have glossier coats), and that, besides, Lassie is immortal and can’t ever die.
Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past—dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, well, who can? When he pokes fun at writers‘ guides (“Never use the word suddenly just to create tension”), or of teachers who ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” he’s still our best poet at piercing the pretensions of the whole literary shebang. Get him off the subject, however, and the poems are suffused with mild gloom and misanthropy.
When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way, reason enough for a man to take off his rose-colored glasses and book a flight to Paris. Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet. Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.
William Logan’s most recent book of criticism is Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. His new poetry collection, Strange Flesh, appeared last fall. This review first appeared in The New Criterion. Read more about Billy Collins, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2009 by William Logan. All rights reserved.