My train of formal thought was interrupted by a reader’s comment, so let’s run with it. Formal verse will always be there.
2 weeks back our own Rich Murphy re-posted a withering appraisal of “contemporary poetry” that he found on an Andrew Sullivan blog. Let’s look back:
David Yezzi provides
a searing critique of what he claims is the shallow optimism of contemporary poetry:
The spectrum of subjects for poetry should be as broad as the spectrum of human emotions, which is not to say that all emotions are equally admirable, only that we exclude consideration of them at our peril.
How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.
Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.
I want to attack this reading, and it seems to me there are many ways to do so. For one, he could be flat-out wrong about the content of “contemporary poetry.” Or, he could be right about its content, but wrong in his opinion that such content is necessarily impoverished. Or, he could have a perspective problem: he notices the content and rages against it only because of some kind of projection, finding disagreeable only what’s disagreeable within himself. Or, the fault in his critique could lie in its hyperbole: the poems “lie,” the world they envision is “excruciating,” the poetry is a “condescending sop.”
I’m going to choose option one–that virtually every sentence he writes is demonstrably false–but I’m going to pick up my hammer next week. For now, and in the interest of conversation, I think it’s fairest to try to understand what he’s talking about. And let’s be honest: he’s talking about Billy Collins.
I like Billy Collins. Many readers of this forum like Billy Collins. Many readers across the country like Billy Collins–way more than like any other “contemporary poet.” There’s probably a quasi-intellectual backlash against Billy Collins; I don’t know. There was one phrase Yezzi used that I like a lot, “the winsome ode to the suburban soul.” It may be that Collins does that as well as any American poet. He might even gladly wear the mantle. Here’s one that I hadn’t seen before, that I think illustrates what we’re talking about. Does this burn your britches? -ed.
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.