Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Self-Proclaimed Poet

'It's difficult to call yourself a poet. It's kind of like calling yourself a saint. You have to wait till thousands of people accuse you of being a poet."
--Poet Billy Collins, interviewed today on the Diane Rehm show. You can learn more about him and sample from his poetry here.
UPDATE: On his blog Writing for the Ear, my friend Mike Quinn posts the audio he originally captured of a presentation Collins made at John Carroll five years ago. We'd label this a must-listen.


At 12:36 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

I love Billy Collins! I also just read Diane Rehm's memoir Finding My Voice. Quite an amazing background she comes from.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I couldn't help noticing how many times the name Billy Collins popped up over the weekend at our recent writing retreat. Three people must have mentioned him, which helped burn him into my brain, and then, voila, there he is on the Rehm show. Anyway, it all served as a reminder that I'm long overdue in checking out his poetry, none of which I've ever read.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

From 'Marginalia'
By Billy Collins

At 3:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jesus, that sent a shiver down my spine and back up again. Only you could choose just the right poem to emphasize the point about how great he is. This poem will make me run, not walk, to find more of his stuff. That poem is good enough to eat--and to reread once a day for the rest of your life. Thanks for posting it, my friend. Your transcontinental appearances here are always sublime experiences.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poets seem to be a dying breed. So I say anybody who wants to be one should be allowed to identify as that. But they should make a special category for Billy Collins, as he is one of the few who actually make money from it. Now that is saintly

At 4:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Those last two sentences are artful, CMR. Thanks for that. Actually, I think the web and open mic nights and poetry slams have helped prompt a rebirth in poetry. At least that's what it looks like from my small corner of the universe. Anyone else have anything to add on that point?

At 4:49 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

Well, as I met my better half at a poetry reading, I'll second that. Had I not read some silly thing I wrote about my love of soup, I might still be buying those single-serving cans.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow! That's a hell of a story, TJ. Nothing like leveraging your gift for words to pick up chicks, and when it ultimately nets you a lovely wife, hell--what could be better than that. I have to admit that this reminds me that I once (oh so long ago) daydreamed of meeting the perfect girl at a bookstore. But a poetry reading is just as good.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

:) it was a poetry reading in a bookstore.

At 5:09 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Man, you're killing me today. I couldn't invent anything that perfect.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Tim Ferris said...

Billy was raised by Jesuits and is one of our HC celebrities. He more than likely attended daily mass during four years of college; he's older than I am, and the daily mass requirement did not fall into disfavor until the mid- to late 60s.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting, Tim. The Jesuit influence obviously shows in his work. And HC, for the uninitiated, is Holy Cross, a fine Jesuit institution up on a hill overlooking Worchester, Massachusetts.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Poets are a dying breed? That's ridiculous. More poetry is being published now than has ever been published in the history of printing and publishing. There are more self-proclaimed poets now than ever before.

But to rain on the parade (you knew it was coming), most of this is indeed crap. Volume is not necessarily indicative of greatness. I include Billy Collins in this, too, as I believe he is proud to pander. The only poets who have ever made a financial living from their poetry, in the past 100 years have been middlebrow, user-friendly, non-challenging, lowest-common-denominator poets who talk down to many of their readers. They sell lots of books, but I'd rate Collins as no better a poet than Rod McKuen. McKuen at least was an unpretentious person and honest in his self-assessment: he knew he was writing doggerel. But that's what people wanted him to write. The very few times he tried to change his style, he got accused of betrayal, and lost sales. So, he did the smart career thing and went back to the doggerel. Don't tell me Collins is better than that, because that's exactly what he's done too.

There are far far better contemporary poets among us right now, who speak far more to the universals of our shared human condition, and who are just plain better writers. Only a week or so ago Hayden Carruth passed away, and he was one of these. Robert Hass is a better poet, too. So is Jane Hirshfield. These poets I mention are just as accessible and easy to understand as Collins, but they're better writers, and their subjects are often more profoundly human. Collins is good at light verse, and his humorous touch is indeed a captivating one, and that's about it.

I prefer Pinsky to Collins for two reasons: Pinsky is a better poet AND he was the single most effective Poet Laureate we've had in my lifetime, doing more to put poetry back into the hands of the appreciative readers than any PL before or since. Collins just sort of sat there and wrote light verse. I'm sorry, there's no comparison.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

If you want a folksy poet of the people who is still alive and writing nowadays, and who leaves Collins in the dust, check out David Lee, who lives and writes in small-town Utah.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The purist has spoken. Thanks for throwing out those names, Art. I'm guessing they're as unknown to most readers as they are to me, so I'll be sure to check out each of them, and perhaps post some of their greatest hits here in coming weeks. Around here, we're all about shining a spotlight on great work, and if it comes from the pen or word processor of a lesser-known name, so much the better.

And yes, the idea that poets are a dying breed struck me as quite contrary to the evidence. But let me point out that it came from CMR, who lives in the sin city of Las Vegas, which is perhaps more in need of great poetry than most places, but also possibly less exposed to it than other towns. Anyway, I'm enjoying this conversation, and hope others will also throw in their two cents.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Fair enough.

Although I have to say, while I agree that Vegas is a place probably quite desperately in need of poetry, at least along the Strip, I don't think there's really any less poetry available there than anywhere else. Some of that is just about knowing where to look. Even chain used book stores like Half Price Books usually have fairly substantial poetry sections, wherein one can browse till one finds something one likes. And people often forget too that Vegas IS a university town: UNLV is no shabby school, it's a pretty darn good college. There's going to be at least one good used bookstore in walking range from the campus, as there is in almost every college town.

It might take a little effort to find it, but I have no doubt the poetry is there to be found.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Agreed. I guess I was talking about my assumption--and only an assumption, since I've never once visited--that fewer poets reside in a place like that than in most cities of comparable size. And Las Vegas is of course one of America's true boom towns just now.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, I can certainly agree that I wouldn't choose to live there, poet or otherwise. Nor Reno. Elko, NV, on the other hand, is rather a nice place. More cowboy country, though.

At 4:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I certainly didn't intend for this to become a beat up on Nevada session. So my apologies on that front. To change the subject, any other favorite poets we should be paying attention to? Anyone?

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I'm very fond of Nevada. Just not of the gambling hells. I've driven Hwy. 50 several times, and camped all over the state. The best parts of it are the small towns and the middles-of-nowhere places. Some incredibly beautiful places, off the beaten path.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I believe it, Art. And off the beaten path is generally the best place to go, isn't it?


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