Fear and Love In Criticism (pt 2): Billy Collins and Accessibility

by on Apr.21, 2011

Billy Collins is often held up as a paradigm of “accessibility” (frequently published in venues with aspirations toward “general readership” – NPR, Best of American Poetry etc) or denounced as a simpleton. I have never really read his work but lately I’ve been interested in reading it as a way to think about this mythic “accessibility” and such. Here’s a poetics poem (turns out almost all of his poems are about reading/writing poetry):

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Often in debates of “accessibility” the opposite of accessibility is “academic” or “difficult”, a term that’s mean to invoke the humorless image of the authoritarian professor/New Critic (or worse). But it’s interesting that a lot of these supposed “accessible” poets are of course professors, and it’s interesting to me that Collins in this ars poetica poem chooses to use the relationship between student and teacher to explore the relationship between writer and reader.

As in Kirby’s article (see my post yesterday), “they” (here the students, in Kirby’s piece it’s the high school teachers) don’t get poetry, so they start asking questions about it, an act which is equated with prison-interrogation. In Kirby’s terminology, they don’t “love” the poem because to “love” the poem is to just accept it – to “waterski/across the surface of the poem” carelessly. By asking questions they are committing a crime against Art.

The paradox is of course that it’s usually the teacher who is portrayed as beating the students… Here the students are powerful… Or are they the reader? Is this the model of a reader who cares too much, turns to violence against a body (the poem) which supposedly doesn’t know anything, did not commit the crime.

The way they’re supposed to read the poem is exemplified by a series of interesting metaphors. The second one in particular interests me: alluding to Plath’s “Arrival of the Bee Box,” Collins advocates “press[ing] an ear against its hive.” But unlike Plath, the speaker does not attempt to interpret the “din” (in Plath’s poem) or “furious latin” (Plath); he does not imagine slave arms clambering in there. In fact he doesn’t imagine anything at all, he just goes on. As in pretty much every single one of Collins’ poems, the speaker is fundamentally untroubled.

In another metaphor, he advocates dropping a mouse into a poem to see if it can get out. The speaker is the master of the poem, in control. He is not, as Plath is, overtaken by Art and convinced to let the swarmy hands out; he is not at all worried about the mouse attacking him. Nothing is at stake.

Of course, this poem about not interpreting poems depends on us being able to interpret it: it’s not a meaningless poem, it’s not about the “surface” – there is very little to waterski on. Rather it’s a poem whose metaphors are meant to be interpreted: reading poetry is like “loving” the oddness of the world carelessly. In order for something to be “accessible” apparently it should not be very interesting on the “surface” but invite an easy close reading (about itself). So accessibility is actually very much part of an academic notion of a meaning that we get at by interpreting the metaphors.

Rather than evading interpretation, “accessible” poetry seems to be dependent on interpretation (you just can’t admit that it is).

The other key ingredient seems to be this carefree attitude. These poems don’t demand anything, they don’t make you uncomfortable, there is no intensity, not trouble. Everything is honky-dory. A OK. Uncomplicated. The person is complete, the poem is complete. No damage done. What is usually cast as a matter of reading skills (things are accessible because we know how to read it) seems equally based on what we want art to do: which is to say, accessible poetry doesn’t want art to bother us too much: maybe a little jokey, maybe a little wistful, but that’s it.

Because I’m not interested in that mode of operating, this poem doesn’t really interest me – isn’t accessible to me – until the last stanza when the readers/students (or bees?) attack the poem, tie it up and ask for its meaning. Or more likely, ask for its crime. And its crime is Art, the crime of art, the murderous nature of art that Plath was so thoroughly acquainted with, what Collins and Kirby tries to cover with their wordless, plain, “accessible,” meaningless “love.” This is an interesting moment. Mostly because I think it’s not actually the readers who are attacking the poem; it’s the poem attacking the reader. It’s the Sublime as Abu Ghraib, Art as Violence.

This all reminds me of a discussion we had a while back in response to the Coldfront review of my book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place.

The Coldfront review went:

Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading. Importantly, Johannes Göransson keeps you reading.

To which Joyelle responded:

To continue through Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death. And even then. Death. The Conqueror Worm. The Emptor (Buyer). (Caveat emptorem, emptor!) The pre-emptor. The bitch to watch, to watch out for (see you in my dreams. Not if I see you first.) The new quarantine that will take your place.

What I’m getting at is the sense in which “accessible” is not so much about access or interpretation (that’s the misleading discussion, afterall my poems are as accessible and lowbrow as the Davinci Code), but an idea that you don’t want art to coerce. Collins wants a safe distance from the Art and its deathy swarms: he want to put an ear to the hive and then move on. He wants to remain complete; he want the poem to be contained. He does not want to become a tree for the bees.

But Art isn’t contained: it inevitably ties you up. Violence and art are intertwined more fully than we like to think (we prefer to think in terms of “aestheticizing violence”): Collins’ hose-beating lead his carefree poem into the troublesome “zone” of “atrocity kitsch“.

46 comments for this entry:
  1. Monica Mody

    The untroubled speaker, the uncomplicated poem. A-Okay. Sounds like they’re living the illusions of capitalism.

  2. Carina Finn

    when you posted the first part of this last week I was really cracked out & had this visceral reaction to the idea that a rhetoric of love & purity was maybe a bad thing for poetry. I cannot conceive of a poetry without love: an obsessive, snotty, hysterical, dramatic love.

    sometimes I think poetry is stupid & pointless but I cannot stop talking about it & I spend many hours every day with other people who feel similarly. but we do not spend hours talking about “accessible” billy collins poems because really, that conversation has an ultimate lifespan of like five minutes. because I can’t love uncomplicated things. the poets I know & respect can’t love uncomplicated things. most of the people I know are constantly slapping sparkly bandaids over all of their self-inflicted poetry wounds & wouldn’t have it any other way.

    which is I guess to say that I think a rhetoric of purity & love is exactly what poetry does need, but it’s the purity & love of a fatally volatile relationship, the kind where no one ever calls the cops because it’s obvious everyone involved likes it.

  3. Bill Knott

    I don’t see the point of comparing Collins to Plath, when he doesn’t write (or want to write) the same kind of poetry as she. Okay you prefer Plath because you prefer that style of verse. But if you’re going to compare Collins to other poets, why not poets of his own stripe: Szymborska, Carol Ann Duffy et al.

  4. Johannes

    The reason I compared him to Plath is that he references Plath’s bee box; that’s what started me thinking about the poem and that opened the poem up for me like a contagion. I’m not really interested in the kind of reading that merely finds similarity; this reading interests me exactly because it takes his poem out of its comfort zone so to speak.

  5. Bill Knott

    are there ANY accessible poets you would praise? Benny Andersen? Tanikawa? Rozewicz? Parra? Zbigniew Herbert? Enzensburger?

    again, what’s your point:— are you saying that Collins doesn’t write very well, that his work is inferior compared to other Accessible Poets——?

    or are you arguing against that entire school of poetry,
    that entire tradition——?

  6. Johannes

    I’m arguing that “accessible” is not an accurate or interesting way of looking at poetry; I’m saying it has more to do with an aesthetic with very little affect than it has to do with “accessing” something.

    And the last section with its hose-beating follows the post I wrote yesterday – where these people (David Kirby, Billy Collins) seem so concerned with keeping people from “interpreting” or talking about the poems (looking for “meaning” is the same as beating up the poem).

    I like plenty of people with a ‘plain’ diction. Nicanor Parra might make an interesting comparison since that is a ferocious use of simplicity.


  7. rawbbie

    “Nothing is at stake.” not really sure if anything is ever at stake in a poem. the biggest “risk” in poetry is writing without auto-correct.

  8. Bill Knott

    okay you object to the term accessible, but it’s just another way to describe the lack-of-affect poem, the antipoem, as Michael Hamburger summarizes it in “The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s”:

    The new anti-poetry——a product of the Second World War, as the very different anti-poetry of Dadaism was a product of the First——arose from an acute distrust of all the devices by which lyrical poetry had maintained its autonomy. For the new anti-poets it was not enough that poetry should be as well written as prose. It should also be capable of communicating as directly as prose, without resort to a special language mainly distinguished by its highly metaphorical character.

    Collins (however you rate the quality of his verse) is clearly an adherent of this school, as are the names I mentioned above——

    and as for him terming himself “accessible” (which is how he characterizes Szymborska in his intro to a trans in English book of hers), be fair: you coin your esthetic with all sorts of ismic names, why begrudge him doing the same?

  9. Bill Knott

    and as Hamburger points out, several great poets who began their careers with, or became famous for, their
    “high metaphorical” modes—

    Montale, Neruda, Benn, to name 3—

    attempted in their later work a much more parlando style—

    call it antipoetry, parlando, accessible, plain-diction, affectless, et al,

    whatever term is applied to this school, it persists

    in the aspirations (and achievements) of popular poets like Collins—

    I know (re your characterization of Parra) you want “ferocity” and you want to wrench Collins out of his “comfort zone,”

    but as it happens many readers of poetry don’t want those things—

  10. Bill Knott

    and thinking of Montale, Neruda, Benn, how they developed,

    who knows maybe YOU will write like Collins et al

    or maybe it’s only “foreign” poets who are allowed to change their styles,

    while USA poets (USAPO) are capitalists who create a trademark mode and stick to it with no deviations throughout their entire careers (see Levine/Armantrout/Palmer/CK Williams and practically every other successful USAPO, academic or avantgarde it doesn’t matter, they all plow the same ground over and over, they all adhere to their brandname-established styles)—

    so hopefully JG you won’t be completely USAPO’d, hopefully you’ll retain enough “foreignness” to be allowed to develop or deviate into alternate routes——

  11. Johannes

    I object to “accessible” b/c it makes a big claim that it needs not be interpreted but in fact it *does* need to be interpreted. But it’s an interesting connection you make, I’ll have to think more about it.


  12. Johannes

    I guess the main thing is that I think Collins is not nearly as austere as say Parland – it’s full of metaphors, but it’s not metaphors that go bee-boxing, it just kind of listen to the hive as he says, doesn’t let the bees out. It’s also not affectless like Parland, but just mildly emotional; it posits a kind of comfortable pleasantness, not something I associate with the people you mention. But yes, I largely dislike the rhetoric of what in Sweden in the 1960s was called “the new simplicity” – that distrust of poetic devices etc. Only Billy Collins is not that; it’s all about metaphors.


  13. Johannes

    A lot of the anti-poetry you mention is about denying a model of interiority that lyrical poetry has for a long time helped create; that doesn’t seem to be Collins MO at all. His poems are all about interiority; about “accessing” it through “accessible” poetry. The “access” in “accessible” poetry. In Parland, there’s no interiority to access.


  14. Monica Mody

    @rawbbie: C’mon, EVERYTHING must be stake when writing a poem, or else what’s the point of writing it! What use is art. Not sure what kind of poetry you’re writing/reading right now but there’s plenty of aesthetic models for poetry out there – there’s plenty of poetry that I’m sure will affect/infect you. If you’re invested, go look. If not, why even bother leaving dragging comments.

    Also I strongly agree with Johannes’ last comment.

  15. Sean Patrick Hill

    Something I found to relate to this idea, this from Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town” essay, here making the distinction between the “public and private” poets:

    “Please don’t take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can consider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let’s use as examples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn’t lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn’t necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private or personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation–the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art. With Hopkins this is evident in words like “dappled,” “stippled,” and “pied.” In Yeats, “gyre.” In Auden, no word is more his than yours.”

    Now, for purposes of argument, obviously, substitute “Collins” for “Auden.”

  16. Sean Patrick Hill

    A bit more from Hugo: “The reason that distinction doesn’t hold, of course, is that the majority of words in any poem are public–that is, they mean the same to writer and reader. That some words are the special property of a poet implies how he feels about the world and about himself, and chances are he often fights impulses to sentimentality. A public poet must always be more intelligent than the reader, nimble, skillful enough to stay ahead, to be entertaining so his didacticism doesn’t set up resistances; Auden was that intelligent and skillful and he publicly regretted it.”

  17. Johannes

    Thanks for your comments. I think Auden is much trickier than Hugo’s distinction would suggest (full of puns and willful obscurantism). I also don’t believe in a stable public language, but I do think that this is an idea that is the foundation for the idea of the “accessible” idea: for it to work, there must be some standardization of language and reading skills (thus the way Collins and Kirby ultimately depend on a new critical model of reading, even as they are troubled by criticism). If you don’t have standard readers you can’t have standard readings, and then no “accessibility.” So this is probably the logic at work.
    But I have to repeat I don’t believe in a model of reading as getting “access” to something; I see it as interacting with a text.
    The “access” metaphor does seem to come from a new critical reading idea.
    I also don’t think didacticism is bad. I love Mayakovski. And Langston Hughes. They seem much more “public” in their concerns than either Auden or Collins. I suppose if I were to believe in the public/private divide, I would disagree with Hugo and say that the distinction does lies “in the subject matter” not in the style. I guess I think most poets are public poets. And that obscurity and/or deviant usages of langauge can be part of the public.


  18. Bill Knott

    Collins writes the same poem over and over,

    and so does Armantrout,

    and almost every other successful USAPO—

    they never or rarely stray outside their “comfort zones” (to use your term from above)—

    consistency creates careers. USAPO can never experiment except within carefully marked out parameters (and this applies to both SOQ and Avantgics).

    “Accessible” is a marketing term, like “Flarf”,

    but that doesn’t stop it from being descriptive of a kind of poetry which is easier to read than some other kinds—

    Szmborska’s poetry is certainly more accessible than Albiach’s, for example.

  19. Johannes

    Yes, it’s definitely a “marketing” term, but I don’t think about poetry the way this term does; and that’s what I’m pointing out. I don’t think of poetry as “access” but as an interaction.


  20. adam strauss

    I like the putting of Plath and BC into relation. My quip regarding BC critiques is that they feel, themselves, to be a consensus; I think it’d be interesting to read BC with the notion that perhaps the sophisticates have been reading him too smugly: I’m not by any means specifically referencing this Montevidayo piece which almost did what Collins criticism never does: imagine that there may be, or almost be, something interesting. Doesn’t he have a book titled The Apple That Ate Paris? That’s delicious!

  21. Johannes

    Yes, I know what you mean Adam. I’m interested in this poem – its relationship to atrocity kitsch, what it says about “accessibility” and hierarchy etc, and maybe most for its revision of Plath – but that’s perhaps not the kind of interest one is supposed to have in him?

  22. Todd Thorpe

    [Sorry for the overlong post, but the idea that Collins’s poetry is accessible strikes me as kind of hilarious. His work comes off as a sort of bad pastoral more concerned with ekphrastic policing than anything else I can tell, so I give a quick close reading of his simple, no-need-for-interpretation, accessible poem.]

    Billy Collins’s poem is a poem full of pronouns and nouns, linked by verbs and prepositions, a world of actions and objects. Newtonian. Real enough, depending on the scale, the speed, the distance.

    The bland and institutional title , “Introduction to Poetry,” assumes a category of language and a tradition of language use, “poetry,” against uses of language that are not: the ordinary world of prose versus the extraordinary world of poetry. The title evokes the breadth requirement classroom, the prerequisite major course, the official anthology of [insert nation, period, style, movement] poetry. How convenient is it that the institutional voice is also that of the humble, artisanal poet’s? Yet, the poem will arduously disavow the privilege the poet asserts in the title, but the poem’s motivation for such a disavowal actually works in the interest of protecting the poet’s privilege.

    The poet thinks that handling the poem means apprehending its structures/strictures of feeling as a scientist would an experiment or naturalist would an ecological system. The calm surface of the second nature of the poem needn’t and mustn’t be exploited by fracking interpretation. Its simple labyrinth need only be scientifically and superficially experienced. Take note: the reader is both the white-coated scientist and the lab rat! The poem is the lab and the labyrinth, a perfectly closed and infinitely open Möbius strip of language. How postmodern!

    The poem is, obviously, far from the collagistic or aleatory practices of the postmodern. It registers the classical democratic ideological imperatives of liberty understood as self-determined motion or rest, of the poem/poet as such an autonomous entity, while “them”, the readers, the squint-eyed interpreters, threaten to impose a collective form of hermeneutic violence that disturbs the poem’s inertia. Interpretation deforms the poem’s natural motion, or, it ruins the poem’s pristine ecology. Interpretation threatens to turn the Möbius strip into a knot of contradiction, a swamp of debate. A poem is meant to be observed and enjoyed, not trampled over. It’s as if a natural law were being violated.

    The poet’s insistence on the poem’s requirement of a very particular kind of negative freedom (freedom from interpretive interference) is the negation of the collective act of reading, of possible poetic dissensus. It is the negation of the collective brought into being by argument over the aesthetic stakes of the poem. This is Epicurus without the clinamen, capital without Marx.This is a liberal poem without debate, which makes it a neoliberal poem without self-consciousness. The poem only works if it is left untouched by the elitists’ grubby hands. The poem communicates, but cannot be communicated with: lyric poetry for the surveillance state. The poem is accessible in the way a parking lot studded with security cameras is accessible.

    Note the sequence of pronouns in the first four lines: first-person singular, third-person plural, third-person singular, third-person possessive singular. “An ear” could have been “your ear” or “their ear,” so the elision of a possessive pronoun for “ear” also allows the readers to be conceived as an amorphous multiplicity inhabited by singularities, much like the “hive” that is the poem, a single thing populated by many individuals all of whom are organized around a collectivized production model. The reader has two (or more, many more) bodies. How interesting that the singular collective reader hears the buzz of labor with her/his/their ear(s) but isn’t about to taste the poem’s honey. That is most likely the prerogative of the I, the singular and unique lyric poet.

    If the poem is a hive, it is also a color slide, though how the process of film production is like making a hive isn’t clarified. While bees chew wood and wax to make hives and early film was made by subjecting wood pulp or, more typically, cotton fibers produced on Southern plantations by sharecroppers’ labor to camphor and nitric acid, now film is made from a type of polyester, a chemical derived from oil. The poem’s second plastic nature may be less Edenic than it first seemed. Bernard Mandeville certainly thought the society of bees less than innocent:

    A SPACIOUS Hive well stock’d with Bees, 

    That lived in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms,

    As yielding large and early Swarms;

    Was counted the great Nursery [5]
Of Sciences and Industry.
No Bees had better Government,

    More Fickleness, or less Content.

    They were not Slaves to Tyranny,
Nor ruled by wild Democracy; [10]
But Kings, that could not wrong, because

    Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

    But the reader isn’t meant to think about the means of production or the aesthetic politics that make Collins’s hive/film/poem possible, only to listen to the rustle of another’s language through the delicately paginated membrane of the text.

    The poem is safe when “they” are having fun on the fluid text, a cool splash of r&r in a world of instrumentalized language. The poem is to everyday language use as a national park is to a freeway meridian. Free aesthetic motion vs. routinized mundane motion on the poetic Möbius strip. This is what the poet wants.

    “I want them”: the exasperated paternal voice only wants the best for readers who don’t know enough to want the best for themselves. The poet really wants to lay down the law that a poem steps outside of the law. The poem uses language but is not used by language. “So leave it alone, already!”

    The poet really wants to say, “there is no alternative but my alternative.” The poet says it nicely in poetry, though, so it feels less authoritarian. Affect is important.

    The poet presents interpretation as a collective rendition, an anonymous rendition “they” undertake as if the poem were James Bond in Quantum of Solace kidnapped by Le Chiffre, tied to a chair, and his nuts beaten with a knotted rope to extract the all important numbers that will give the bad guys access to millions of dollars they’ll use to buy guns, drugs, and whores. Interpretation is obviously bad. It is decidedly anti-pastoral.

    Well, interpretation isn’t so much bad as disavowed. Christopher Nealon’s recent The Matter of Capital offers a useful passage: “It has been difficult for critics to probe the historical imagination that gets attached to the idea of textuality in poetry in English because of the overlap of two critical traditions–a New Critical tradition in which modern poetry has been understood generically, as always gesturing back to an originally oral “lyric” in one sense or another, and a poststructuralist tradition in which the idea of textuality takes on such powerful philosophical overtones that its mundane history is eclipsed” (2).

    The poem may be accessible, but it forecloses in a profoundly anti-intellectual way on the wide-ranging discourse that could set its poetics into contemporary context. The poem is, to put it crudely, a fetishized commodity, inaccessible in its artificial immediacy.

  23. adam strauss

    Yesyesyes–your connections I agree are not typically in the ken of a discussion regarding BC, and that is excellent: for one thing, you bothered, before ultimately going back to a more typical tone regarding him, to not settle for the tiresome line against him! I wonder if Ashbery and BC cld be fruitfully together; sure, this ditty of an idea cld fail, but that’s ok. And it does feel very legit to “sweeten” the SP poem via revision as its politics suck: linking blackness to grossness/terror is so friggin predictable and, quite possibly, insensitive. Now, yesyesyes, insensitivity is a very tricky notion as regards art, and I am not consistant. I guess I just likke the utopical idea that Plath wld have bothered writing with a non-white reader in mind; but of course I don’t for one freezing second think most white writers entertain the notion of a non-white readership. Ingrained power: ugh.

  24. Johannes

    No, I totally disagree with “sweetening” the Plath: it shows a kind of carelessness that I don’t care for. And I totally disagree with your dismissal of the slave imagery as “cliche” or “insensitive”. It’s thinking through a network of abject/race/deathdrive/compulsion. Sure, you have heard of it before (Kristeva etc) but it was incredibly original when she did it and it’s still provocative (though you prefer “insensitive”). It’s also related to your disagreement with my Ronaldo Wilson post: just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t make it cliche, it might make it actually a strong current in our culture (such as the portrayal of gay people or immigrant as kitsch), and that may make it an important topic to investigate. Also, I think the key point about Plath vs Collins is that Plath engages in interpretation, while Collins lazily chooses to just hear a din.


  25. adam strauss

    @ T Thorpe: Oh I likelikelike your lengthy reading, and especially “The poem is the lab and the labyrinth.” The use of rhymed couplets strikes me as interesting–alluding to the assaying of Pope perhaps? And Nursery/Industry strikes me as an interesting pairing which is rather astute.

  26. adam strauss

    Ok I’m a dumby–the couplet poem isn’t BC–oops, apologies!

  27. Bill Knott

    As usual, you marginal avantniks can “prove” the unworthiness of Collins,

    who has no defense against your gradgrind sophistry and scorn save the hundreds of thousands of poetry readers

    who buy, read and enjoy his books. Count me amongst the latter.

  28. Johannes

    Thanks for the name-calling, Bill. I liked it better when I thought we were having a discussion.


  29. adam strauss

    Cliche and insensitive strike me as not always synonyms; and abjection and race and death-drive strike me as terms which can be linked, but I wouldn’t automatically equate them. In particular, I’d argue that abjection gets immensely tricky with regards to race. I guess I’m confused why you choose to ignore the obvious link that SP was a white Bostonian in the early sixties and so it’s entirely unsurprising that some of her figurations would register as icky in an unmotivated way; gender acuteness need not mean critical acumen across the political spectrum. For me race is where Plath, normally hyperconscious, slips into the mind of her time. Too, the key for me to my prior post is the idea of imagining a reader, and wondering if the writer is imagining a racially other reader. Too, I don’t see this is remotely a totalizing critique of Plath—who I LOVE.

  30. adam strauss

    “Lazy” is a critical term which interests me; and I do agree that Plath is an ambition that BC is not: I love her journals and how they frequently reveal her goal of being The Poet, of being the newest flower in the cannon.

  31. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Is there a problematic linkage between ideas of no interior / nothing to access and claiming that inside the poems resides more or less ambition? Would the argument be augmented to say no, of course the ambition or lack there of resides outside the poem? But if New Criticism fails then this other level of exterior would seem to be at a pointless distance, it’s all intertwined.

    Definitely agree that ideas of intrinsic meaning to be accessed are foolish ones, even the ‘simplest’ poems can be as complicated as the reader feels like making them, the reverse being true as well about ‘hard’ poems. Just seems a conversation that can only really be had about what we know or think we know a given poet thinks, it seems like it can’t enter the space of the poems themselves or we’re falling into the same trappings we think are foolish.

  32. Todd Thorpe

    @ Adam. Thanks for your comment. I’m fascinated at how the seemingly ordinary language of the poem papers over some cultural contradictions with contradictions of its own. The way the poem stages proximity and distance, hearing and sight, and uses pronouns are all very interesting.

    @ Bill. Thanks also for your comment. “Marginal avantniks” is something I could have run across in a column by Herb Caen, who did help to put beatnik on the map all those years ago. Now, sadly, the Beats are as mainstream as it gets.

    I don’t think Collins’s poetry worthless, far from it, though I don’t think it good. I think it’s frequently a sort of bad pastoral, and that’s a criticism I’d lay at the work of Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder on occasion as well, even though their poetry is much more interesting generally.

    As for the “gradgrind sophistry,” I applaud the allusion to Dickens, but I reject the contention. If you think my reading was unfair or mistaken, by all means show me how you think otherwise. Market share isn’t an aesthetic validation for poems any more than it is for SUVs or Big Macs. I’m fascinated by the poem’s use of pronouns to both reveal and conceal (oh, more gradgrind Heidegger for you) the multitude of readers/workers/citizens. Those slippery pronouns convey an ideological punch. Am I wrong to be so interested in them? Are they transparent and in no need of interpretation?

    Why ought the poem to be left alone? I’m interested in how your comment reiterates the poem’s disdain for academic readings. What do you see yourself defending the poem (or poet) against? I see the poem proclaiming an ersatz simplicity for itself, but how do you see it? Why does a reader need to be passive before the text (viewing a slide, listening to the hive), and why can’t a reader think with or against the text?

  33. Johannes

    I have to echo something here: Why is it so difficult to have a discussion about “accessibility” without it turning into an attack on academics and or “avantgardnicks” or whatever. Into this defensive/binary discussion. It’s really the rhetoric of enforced no-discussion that I”m interested in here and how this very defensive posture jives or doesn’t jive with some idea of “accessibility.” In my own poetry I use many of the same devices and sentence structures and word choices that Collins does, and yet I get accused of being an obscure or “coercive.” That’s because “accessibility” doesn’t just have to do with your formal devices. And that’s in large part what I want to get at. That certain ideas/feelings (about art, gender etc) are more accessible to me is the crux.


  34. Jake Levine

    I’d like to clear the air a bit here…

    Something inside me is going to come out that I have not shared with anyone before… I kind of like Billy Collins and his poetry. It’s infuriating that, like a comedian, Collins can use the same tricks over and over again and with effect. It’s completely transparent. But I wonder how he does it so well. I don’t agree with his message or his posturing, but I can’t help with loving the you are a breadloaf and I am the bottle cap, and you are the steak knife, and I am the crystal gavel, but you are not the wind underneath the swan’s wing poem. It’s incredibly easy to mimic Collins because his techniques are virtually transparent, but try to write poems that “accessible”. It’s hard. I can’t do it. It makes me feel like a big idiot. I’m much more comfortable teaching Foucault than I am teaching Billy Collins. I think I understand Foucault more than I understand Billy Collins. I’m glad Billy exists in the world. His poems are perplexing… as in, I don’t know why they are good. It haunts me. I’ll never teach him and I may never admit to liking him ever again. On that note, I met him once, he’s a nice guy. He does all kinds of wonderful fund raising for the poetry center in Tucson.

    I also like Makoto Aida. I had a sake shot with him. I would rather talk about this: http://mizuma-art.co.jp/artist/popup_e.php?uid=0010&imgID=10 because it interests me more than this: http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/the_lanyard.html I also kind of enjoyed the last installment of the Terminator series. I don’t know why. I secretly thumbs up anything that is post-apocalyptic. Well anyway, it’s okay to have different tastes and aesthetics, and I think it’s okay to admit liking things and not understanding why you like them. I like Billy Collins. I have no idea why.

  35. Jake Levine

    on that note, i often give my mother the lanyard poem on mother’s day because one time i made her a lanyard when i was 24. she doesn’t really wear it out much.

  36. Dan Hoy

    “These poems don’t demand anything, they don’t make you uncomfortable, there is no intensity, not trouble. Everything is honky-dory. A OK. Uncomplicated. The person is complete, the poem is complete. No damage done.”

    I agree 100% with the last sentence of this but the rest of it may be a little more complicated. Because I think a lot of people do enjoy Collins’ poetry, and they enjoy it because it shines with a kind of intensity that contorts them a bit but perhaps not too much. Collins is kind to his readers. The question I would ask here is if he loves them. This is a weird question to ask. But to me love does real damage. You fuck with someone because you love them. This is not to say that love is mutually exclusive with kindness. In fact I think one without the other lacks something. This something is what I’m looking for.

    I do want to say that Collins was U.S. poet laureate when I was in DC and I thought he was a great choice. He’s like a less affected, more natural Kevin Spacey in person. He’s great in front of a crowd. If you’re going to assign power to some kind of politically-appointed “state” poet, this is your guy.

  37. adam strauss

    @Jake: I like that If you are this, I am this poem too!

    More on the Plath bee poem: I’m confused why it would be connected to abjection; it’s very clearly a poem regarding ownership (Daddy, Fever 103, lady Lazarus, yesyesyes an abjection lens makes sense; yes the speaker includes the possibility the bees could attack, but it’s also stated that they have no reason; and the speaker is certainly in control: she can let the bees go and be a god–and she will release them; but the power to release is for sure the domain of the slaver and or someone who has massively more power; if the metaphoric bodies were white in this poem I think it’d be amazing, but because they’re not (even the roman senator bit uses a simile while the swarmy feel of African hands part does not, so the relation to the black bodies is more direct. And I think she might–re-read the poem lastnight but am not looking directly at it right now–write that a key reason they can be released is because they ain’t all that valuable (this judgment is very interesting for its disco-ball glittery complex racism), and certainly regardless, their release is in her control–a control she seems to enjoy more than be overtly troubled by; I think it could be interesting to put this poem in relation to the Emmet Till case; yes, it’s true I’ve not read the court transcripts and yes I am aware that this may be a provocative proposal. Readings of this sort are tricky: I by no means advocate this be the only one.

  38. Johannes

    Adam, this is a really simplistic reading of the poem, and calling it “disco ball racism” just irritates me (aside from using anti-kitsch rhetoric in a very revealing and relevant way). Yes, absolutely read it next to the Emmet Till case and any other cases of the era; that just suggests its complexity. I don’t have time to respond in great length right now, but clearly my reading of the poem in his post has to do with a certain kind of experience of Art, one that is part of atrocity (as is the Collins poem). But to me it clearly invokes the idea of abjection – what has to be purged for our roles in society – and the compulsion/fascination of the death drive; and many African-American artists and writers have also explored the connection between race and abjection. See for example Kara Walker, that I referenced recenlty. Must go now.

  39. adam strauss

    @JG–I like your point regarding why is your work seen as difficult/foreboding whereas BC isn’t despite the overlap of methods. I think it may be because BC has a somewhat fireside chat quality tonally, whereas that’s not the impression I get with your work, tho I havn’t read much of it so this could be untrue. Too, much of it is likely context–you (and I, and others) are in the overtly sophisticated/academic room, the “edgy” room, the young and “cool” one. Azadine Alaia versus Calvin Kline. the clothes may employ two similar hemlines or cut angles, but no-one would lump those two designers together.

  40. adam strauss

    I used the disco-ball image because it’s spherical and faceted (and hence possessed of a glitter)–the image was meant to imply that there is complexity. I agree that there can be a relationship between race and abjection, but I don’t think it’s always apt; for one thing, where does abjection end and institutional brutality begin or viceversa; I don’t see these phenomena as synonyms, tho not being synonyms does not mean they’re polarities. I still don’t at-all see this particular Plath poem as containing the abject–unless it be the bees.

  41. Johannes

    Well, Adam, rather than me guessing what you mean, why don’t you explain to me why this is a racially insensitive poem.

  42. rawbbie

    @Monica Mody, I’d say I’m very invested in poetry and read widely and love poetry. But, really? EVERYTHING at stake? Like your life? You put your loved one’s lives at stake when you write poetry?
    I sit at a computer. Have electricity. And warm water. And food. There is rarely anything ‘risked’ or in danger or ‘at stake’ in American poetry. I hate those terms when talking about writing.

    On another note, does anyone see the irony of us so heavily critiquing this poem? That we are beating it with a hose right now?

  43. Johannes

    I’m not opposed to hose-beatings.

  44. She Found The Horse Prophesied | Whimsy Speaks

    […] on accessible poetry:  “The other key ingredient seems to be this carefree attitude. These poems don’t demand […]

  45. Nick Demske

    oh man. could there have been a more fitting conclusion to that thread?

  46. “Ordinary Sun” vs “accessible poetry” (pt 4): Collins, Robinson, Henrikson - Montevidayo

    […] Johannes on Apr.29, 2011, under Uncategorized A couple of days ago I wrote a post about Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” and the common but misleading rhetoric of “accessible […]