The Trouble with Poetry is Billy Collins’s seventh collection of poems, his first since he completed his tenure as United States Poet Laureate in 2003. One of the special projects he instituted during his laureate was “Poetry 180,” an effort to engage high schools in daily readings of American poems. In his Internet notes to the project, he urges schools to recruit a variety of readers ranging from faculty and staff to students, and not just students with literary bents. He also encourages schools not to turn the poems into assignments in analysis; instead he suggests that the project should simply offer young people something they rarely experiencethe pleasure of hearing an accessible poem, one read simply for the sake of pleasing its hearers. Although “Poetry 180” is aimed at high schools, its goals might well represent Collins’s overall poetic goals as they are translated into the poems he writes, poems which celebrate the beauties of the quotidianthe things he loves, ranging from jazz to poetry, to the look of the lawn from the kitchen window. Implicit in his work is the idea that readers may enjoy these things as well, particularly if the poem nudges readers into noticing their beauty. This is why, in the introduction to his collection The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), he teasingly protested those who would to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.”
Thus the poems in The Trouble with Poetry will seem like pleasantly familiar ground to Collins’s fans; they offer his direct language, his sly humor, and his joy in the world which surrounds him. One of Collins’s habits is to address the reader directly and familiarly, more typical of the usage of nineteenth century novelists than of twenty-first century poets. For Collins, the direct address becomes an invitation into the poem. “You, Reader” serves as this collection’s dedication and suggests that the reader may be sorry to discover that Collins wrote the poem rather than the reader himself. Collins’s point is that the things he included in the poem were already in the reader’s mindthe details of the room and the dining table, the music on the radio. As he speculates playfully about the relationship between the salt and pepper shakers on the table, the poet concludes that their relationship is like the poet’s relationship with the reader; they are simultaneously friends and strangers.
The fabric of Collins’s world is woven of familiar threads as well. In an earlier volume he suggested that he felt like the amanuensis of the day, a sort of poetic court reporter, recording the day’s details. In this volume, too, one sees the weather and wallpaper and hears the radio playing Cole Porter. No wonder Collins elects to dedicate a poem (“Eastern Standard Time”) to his fellow residents in the Eastern time zone who share breakfast hours and work schedules with him, while residents of other time zones may already have gone to bed.
In the midst of all these familiar themes, a few poems here introduce territory which seems foreign to Collins’s usual stances. In “The Drive,” for example, the speaker finds himself in a car directly behind another car, the driver of which begins to speak badly of “you”some friend of the speaker. The speaker becomes progressively more and more angry as he listens to the driver’s abuse until he finds himself mentally marking the driver’s skull with the sort of dotted lines that indicate cuts of meat on a chart as he imagines locating some particular region which could harbor all this ill will. The poem ends with the ambiguous picture of the speaker, who metaphorically wears a butcher’s cap and apron while riding along, a garb one is unaccustomed to seeing on such a genial poet. An equally uncomfortable poem is “The Revenant,” in which the speaker is “the dog you put to sleep.” From his canine afterlife, the dog reveals his longstanding hatred of the master and everything associated with himhis friends, the toys he provided, even the maddening jingling of his dog tags. The dog’s venom is relieved at the end by a reappearance of Collins’s whimsyin the afterlife dogs write poetry (and cats write prose).
As this volume’s title indicates, Collins continues to examine poetry and poets with gentle humor. In “Monday,” for example, he begins, in his guise of the day’s secretary, by indicating that everything is in its proper place this morning. Birds inhabit trees, toast pops from the toaster, “and the poets are at their windows.” As the poem goes on to catalog the...
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