A Review of The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins

Good poets possess the ability to extrapolate the profound from the mundane, and this is a talent that former United States and current New York Poet Laureate Billy Collins occasionally demonstrates in his collection of 43 poems, The Trouble With Poetry (Random House, 2005). The actual poem of that title appears not as the first, last, or middle poem in the book, as might be expected, but as the penultimate one, which might lead to hours of speculation and hypothesizing by those with entirely too much free time.

The best poetry delivers its message with both style and subtlety, causing the reader to think, but not baffling him with convoluted imagery and abstruse language. Maybe half a dozen of the poems in this 112-page volume achieve this paradigm.

In “The Lanyard,” Collins reminisces about a simple gift -a braided, red and white plastic necklace- that he made for his mother while he was a boy at summer camp. Not until years later, the poet recollects, did he realize “that this useless, worthless thing I wove” could not repay the woman who gave him life.

With domestic metaphors and almost bemused detachment, Collins touches upon death and destruction in “Building with Its Face Blown Off”:

. . .how the blue and white striped wallpaper/of a second story bedroom
is now/exposed to the lightly falling snow/as if the room had answered
the explosion/ wearing only its striped pajamas (38).

The poem concludes with a couple at a picnic, hedonistically oblivious to the horror half a world away. The end calls to mind the ploughman who has observed the hapless Icarus falling from the sky in W.H. Auden’s “MuseÃ?© des Beaux Arts,” but the latter is ostensibly a case of apathy as opposed to ignorance.

. . .the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry/
But for him it was not an important failure. . .1

With gently iconoclastic satire, Collins lampoons staid traditions regarding death and burial in “Breathless.” The poet maintains that he would rather be laid to rest curled into the fetal position, and wearing a comfortable pair of pajamas rather than a stuffy three-piece suit.

Although plain and unaffected, Collins’s writing reveals an unmistakable erudition. But while he does not confound with his choice of vocabulary, Collins frequently dangles the reader on the precipice of comprehension. He begins many poems by focusing on a simple subject, then circuitously forming a trail of words that is supposed to lead to some deeper meaning, innovative comparison or startling epiphany, but rarely does. There is a big difference between stimulating the reader’s thought processes, and leaving him utterly clueless.

The first poem, “You, Reader,” is basically the introduction, and is set apart from the main body of the work. In this initial offering, Collins playfully boasts that he, not the reader, has written and published this book of verse. The rest of the book is divided into four sections, but this division seems arbitrary, as the number of poems in each section varies and there is no common theme or idea. The majority of poems are comprised of tercets or quatrains, but Collins often alternates between three and four-line stanzas, and occasionally seems to disregard any specific structure. This bolsters the argument that modern poetry is simply prose, haphazardly divided into stanzas of varying length. If all of the stanzas in these poems were consolidated, the meaning, or lack thereof, would likely remain the same. That, not the argument that poetry begets more poetry (83-84), is the real trouble with poetry.

1″Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.” Classic Poetry Pages. 2003. Lemon8 design and development. 4 July 2006. .

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