Monday, June 08, 2009

is billy collins killing poetry? and the poetic line


over at first thoughts and siris they're having a small informal symposium on a question that essentially boiled down to this: is billy collins writing slam poetry for the upper middle class? you can say what you will about billy collins, whether you think he's killing poetry or not. i believe poetry has a pretty high tolerance level for bad writing (it's been happening for years), and if billy collins is the end of poetry as we know it, it would certainly not be for the reason that he is writing slam poetry for yuppies.

i cannot, however, let the post by the blogger at siris go by without response. he urged us to consider the collins poem 'another reason:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
You could take the same thing and write it all together with no change, and it would be part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking. He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark that he barks every time they leave the house. They must switch him on on their way out.
And you will have lost nothing. It is a poem, in the most basic sense that it is crafted language for the sake of the language, but the differences between Billy Collins and (say) Garrison Keillor, setting aside topics, are entirely incidental.
he is actually making this point along the way to his inverse point, that scattering whatever random sentences you find around a page does not necessarily make it poetry (an advertiser could do this, he says), but the fact remains that changing these lines does change this poem fundamentally. siris mistakenly thinks that because a poem is endstopped at normal breath points, therefore it would be the same were it in paragraph format. this is simply not true. all that an endstopped breath means is that the poet wanted the momentum of the line to end there, and not carry on into the next line. to say that collins in a paragraph form is the exact same neglects completely the possible elements of tone embedded in lineation. and with a poet like collins (or keillor) , it's not a stretch to say that tone is 9/10ths of the poem. for a helpful essay on tone, check out real sofistikashun by tony hoagland

siris also makes what i think is an unhelpful distinction between verse and poetry. i suppose it's helpful if you want to have a term that refers only to a relatively strict formal aesthetic, but this seems based more on a bias towards aesthetic rather than helpful distinction. especially when you consider the fact that someone who would fall under siris's category of "poetry" but not "verse" would be robert lowell. if you look at lowell's most famous poems, however, it would not be hard to turn them into his definition of "turns and returns of language":
Thirsting for
the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
becomes:
Thirsting for the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore, and lets them fall.
you can see that lowell does indeed have a very simple rhyme scheme at work here, but he has chosen to deliberately lineate this poem differently.

poetry, is not only, as he concludes, "the craft of making excellent language" (and therefore great prose can be effective in the same way that a poem is ultimately). there is a deliberateness in poetry that does not exist in prose. a writer of prose does not intend to do anything except write in paragraphs. a poet, however, always has the options of writing in more than just a paragraph. therefore, the decision to write in lines or paragraphs, or in hypertext even, is a deliberate decision (and therefore, indicative of a reason, or at least the potential of a reason).

this is distinguished from ads, however, because an ad is, more or less, limited by the page on which it is printed. hence line breaks come from another necessity than the decision of the poet (though such a necessity can sometimes be parallel in reasoning to poetry, as for instance, in the timing and pace of text on an ad). in this sense, form poems are more likely to share a relationship with ads, because their limitation is, in some sense, imposed upon them (though again, by the deliberate choice of the poet). this stands in contrast to free verse, which 'ideally' allows the poem itself to determine its 'form' (the meandering and occasionally anxious timing and rhyme scheme of "Prufrock" being the perfect example of this).

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