Sunday, June 29, 2008

Billy Collins: Porky Pig Poet

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal features an article by Billy Collins, the most popular poet in America and former Poet Laureate. Collins makes a few interesting observations about artistic influence: “the question of literary influence is a tricky one. For one thing, it offers the author the opportunity to duck it by substituting for his actual influence certain names the dropping of which is designed to impress.” He notes that writers tend to only name artists from their own genre, when “the truth is that influence enters us from all sides. . . . A short-story writer may have been influenced by 18th-century Dutch painting as much as anything else—or by his mother’s cooking.” Unfortunately, Collins spends the rest of the article describing how Warner Brothers cartoons influenced his own work:

Characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. Anticipating the tricks of metafiction, these creatures could hop right out of the world of the cartoon and into our world, often Hollywood itself to consort with caricatures of Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Monroe. Or Bugs would do the impossible by jumping out of the frame and landing on the drawing board of the cartoonist who was at work creating him. This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry. Robert Bly developed a poetics based on the notion of psychic “leaping,” where the genius of a poem is measured by its ability to leap without warning from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.

We can agree with the broader statement about imaginative leaping (Keats’s “To a Nightingale” is another great example, as is Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual”), but the connection between cartoons and great art is more than a little labored.

There’s nothing pretentious about Collins, which we admire. But his article will not comfort anyone who believes that there isn’t enough substance to his poetry. Case in point:
the poetry (first published in 1977) that accompanies the article. For example:

Happy only
when he is gardening alone
far from conversation
and the terrible stammering
far from Petunia, nag and tease
just resting on a hoe
as he contemplates
the blue background of his flat world --
a Zen pig.

We do not count ourselves among those who think that pop culture can inspire only bad poetry, but this has all the heft of a kindergarten haiku, and is neither interesting nor (worst of all!) even funny. We prefer this one by William Trowbridge, which a) surprises the reader and b) makes connections between the subject matter and the speaker’s life.

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