Dec 24, 2013

Billy Collins' "Snow Day" and the Gift of Gab

Sandhill Cranes
It seems everyone wants me to like Billy Collins’ poetry, and for the most part, I do. I especially like what he and the other makers of “the poetry of accessibility” have done for the popularity of poetry. They’ve created a likable product; they’ve even made it sell.

However, when I’m asked if I like Collins, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, and others, I find myself feeling guarded. I think that has much to do with long-ish narratives and the premium they place on humor and charm.

Many “accessible” poems take a long time to deliver their punch, if there’s any sock-'em at all to go with the charm. I’m likely to find more reward, more left hook, more dirt and scabs and tobacco-spit, in addition to more lily-like beauty, in a single line of Hopkins, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Bishop, and others.

Why should I not ask poets to try for that power-per-line or at least power-per-stanza? I suppose one answer is that charming, winking, “accessible,” inoffensive poems sell better. So poems are Barbie Dolls? Buicks? Surely that’s a poisonous argument to anyone who cares about the art of poetry. 

Here’s a season-appropriate Billy Collins poem that I don’t dislike—mostly because of the originality and keen perception of the dog that will “porpoise through the drifts.”  Also the radio’s being specifically “plastic” somehow plants me nicely in the poem’s suburban world, although farms and cities probably have plastic radios too.

But I’d drop the first two stanzas entirely, along with some of the ten cute names for elementary schools. If ten is an OK number, why not seventeen?

I’d rather hear more about the meanness of the girls. Should it prepare me for grown women? Should it worry me, especially when evolutionists say the female does the selecting of a mate? 

And by the way, if all the schools are closed, which three girls are plotting? And where? Where is the speaker now, that he might move close enough to hear their words?
And how much does any of that have to do with a snow day? 

Many of Billy Collins’ poems are richer, more urgent than “Snow Day.” If you wish, consider his poem "Silence":

I’ve picked "Snow Day" instead because it might illustrate why some poetry hardliners and old-timers are leery of populist poetry and the apparent argument that poetry might amount to little more than the gift of gab. I hope we all want poetry to sell and poets to prosper, but I also hope we prefer gems to synthetics, poems to fortune cookies. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Snow Day by Billy Collins : The Poetry Foundation

Dec 16, 2013

Lovers' Lane