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


Jean Spitzer said...

Happy holidays, Banjo.

Snow, very appropriate for today.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks. Yes, Plenty of snow, even more cold. So you're not in Texas anymore?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Don't you think most of us our prisoners of the 'approachable' when it's not our personal corner of expertise?

Stickup Artist said...

I am very aware that there is a huge disconnect between what photographers and learned critics like as far as photography goes, vs. photography the general public likes. It's probably the same with poetry.

Love the road photos and how the orange toned images bookend the blues.

Happy Holidays!

Rune Eide said...

A (somewhat belated) Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you!

You have snow in your poem and in you photos (especially enjoyed the panoramas). We have monochrome weather with horizontal rain and 8 degrees C. At 60 degrees north.

Jean Spitzer said...


BTW, found out some of the story behind the poetry foundation's fancy building.

It was left a ton of money from a poet who kept submitting poems to the foundation's publication and always was rejected--but with really thoughtful rejection letters.
it paid to be polite and kind.

Banjo52 said...

PA and Stickup, yes, I'm sure the amateur vs. expert divide is important. And kudos to the accessible poets for bridging the gap without completely sacrificing standards. Maybe my saying, "Yes, but" makes me an old grump, but somebody's got to do that dirty work. :)

Rune, hang in there. Surely you'll get the white stuff soon.

Jean, yes, it's a remarkable story with a useful message.

Ken Mac said...

Billy Collins' poetry is a constant in the MTA's Poetry in Motion series. Some of it seems pretty corny, but a welcome site nonetheless in the always drab subway disposition. Happy New Year!

Lovers' Lane