Sunday, November 16, 2008


Below is a bit of a revision of a comment I left on Isabella’s blogpage, Magnificent Octopus.
I hope she does not mind that I use it here on my own page now, as my own review of Ballistics, by Billy Collins.

I have just recently read Ballistics and prior to this I have read all of Collins’s other collections of poems, over the years. So I have really followed him, thanks to a friend introducing me to his work. And not only have I followed him, but he has very much influenced the way I myself write poetry.
I would say that the ease with which Collins handles commonplace events and the gentle way he looks in, around, and over any topic at his disposal, it has all helped me to see the beauty and wonder that are a part of everyday experience. And because of this, he has inspired me to do my own writing.
Some commentators are saying that he has “hit a dead end” with Ballistics.
Or, “The very things that make him popular, accessible and clever -- especially around the time of ‘Picnic, Lightning’ -- have solidified into concrete, and like a machine endlessly repeating itself he turns out poems with subtle color variations but which remain in the same mold.” [Sean Patrick Hill in The Oregonian].
I will agree that Ballistics seems to me “typical” Collins stuff.
But, having said that, it is still such rich and wonderful work.
Why fix what ain’t broke?
And I think that with Billy Collins a key word is “accessible.” Were I to be introducing someone to the world of contemporary poetry, it would be Billy Collins I was gift-wrapping.
And what about serenity?
For this, just listen to the endings, the last stanzas of so many of his poems here in Ballistics.
The way he describes what The Great American Poem might “sound” like:

I once heard someone compare it
to the sound of crickets in a field of wheat
or, more faintly, just the wind
over that field stirring things that we will never see.

From The Lamps Unlit

And who cares if it takes me all day
to write a poem about the dawn
and I finish in the dark with the night –
some love it best – draped across my shoulders.

Or this, from one of my own favorites, Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant

And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches –
the plates and teapots, the immaculate tablecloths,
as well as the soft brown hair of the waitress
in the white blouse and short black skirt,
the one who is smiling now as she bears a cup of rice
and shredded beef with garlic to my favorite table in the corner.

Billy Collins is the epitome [in our day] of the magnification of words.
He takes the everyday and presents it as once in a lifetime.
The above-mentioned critic went on to point out that it is unfortunate that with Ballistics, Collins has failed to “expand, explore, and attempt to break new ground.”
Others of us can be somewhat grateful.

To read more about it, click HERE.
To get your own copy, click HERE.



Anonymous said...

Collins is "accessible" in the way that Robert Frost is "accessible."

I see him as a genius of simplicity in many of his poems. It is only when you look closer - as he is continually admonishing us to do in Real Life - that you see his subtle craft. It then becomes rather astonishing.

He is deceptively simple.

You will not find him lamenting that it took him seven years to come up with just the right phrase - as Donald Hall (bless him, I love him too) did for his White Apples and the Taste of Stone.
Ok. It took you seven years to find that single phrase, Donald. But I still don't GET it.
Maybe the fault is in me.

But with Collins (usually) and to a much deeper (I think) degree with Frost, the simple message is there for the taking. (And what is wrong with that, I ask you?)
It takes us - us - to look closer to see the artifice lying under it.

Artifice should never be apparent!

They repeat themes.

Why? Because they are worth repeating.
Because that is what we do.

Collins does not want poetry to die. He wants us all to be able to enjoy it. If we can look's there.

Cipriano said...

I very much agree with you, anonymous, that Collins is similar to Frost in this sub-point of accessibility.
I am somewhat against obscurantist poetry, really.
I like Hardy!
Hardy is not trying to obscure, but make clear.
As is Frost. As is our dear Billy Collins.

In the art world, no one likes Robert Bateman because his lynxes look too much like.... lynxes.
I have one, crouching in the snow, above my bed.
I like it.
It looks like a lynx... and very much so.
And I'm OK with that.

At other times, I can aprreciate Jackson Pollock.
As you say though, Artifice should never be apparent.
I would add... obscurantism should never be deliberate.

Isabella K said...

One of YOUR favourites??!
I'm sorry, that one's already taken.