Billy Collins: So this poet walks into a poem…

To read Best American Poetry 2006, when Billy Collins was the judge, is to be struck by the ‘stand-up comedy’ style of its poetry.

Reading over the clever, flamboyant, frank poems in BAP 2006 with more care than they perhaps deserve, we notice the “voice” in these poems tends to be humorous and idiosyncratic—but not quite ‘comedy club’ humorous.  And yet, this seems to be, by default, the target audience.   There’s some success and some charm which follows from this style, but it’s also problematic, since it ultimately doesn’t work as poetry,  and yet it doesn’t work as comedy either; it flounders in a never-never land, between the two genres.

I like to laugh as much as the next person, and when I’m laughing, I don’t care whether what I’m reading is supposed to be poetry, or not.   But what if the material isn’t really funny?  What if that’s the intent, but, in reality, it’s finally just weird? There’s a desire to repeat a good joke, but the merely odd tends to be forgotten.  This is what happens to all contemporary poetry, it seems.

The following is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”  When Collins tries to say how the “voice” feels like something he can “trust,” he gets into  trouble.   When you ask a poem—which is a fiction—to be “honest,” as Collins does, you move  into tricky territory.

Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose the familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurring of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat.  Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern.  It’s the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs.   What has come to replace this system of trust, if anything?  However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice.  As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines.  Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims itself–usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly–or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger?

–Billy Collins, Introduction to BAP 2006, David Lehman series editor

How does Collins expect the reader to figure out that the poem he happens to be reading is not by a “stranger?” The Collins criteria have no merit: “fallibly but honestly?”   Should we trust a poem that begins: Goo goo ga ga goo goo. Fallible?  Yes. Honest? Yes.

But Collins says:  Nothing “grandiose.”  No “riddles.”  Nothing “foisted.”

Let’s be honest, here.  Collins isn’t really talking about a ” voice” that he can “trust.”   That’s just the professor in him talking.   What he’s really looking for are comic bits.    Here, chosen at random, are the opening lines of some poems in BAP 2006:

“Into every life a little ax must fall.”   —Kim Addonizio

“I just found out that my new husband/May have never married me at all.”  —Laura Cronk

“When a sentence is composed of two independent /clauses, the second being weaker than the first/it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it/purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called Ring/Dropped In Muddy Creek, or if elegantly composed, Wasp Fucking Orchid.”Tom Christopher

“At the Miro exhibit in the Centre Pompidou,/I hear a guy say to his girlfriend…”   —David Kirby

“I’ve been smoking so much pot lately”  —Jennifer Knox

“Nose out of joint, City Slicker?/Blown a gasket, Hot Shot?/Fit to be tied, Arty Farty?/Going through the roof, Curtain Raiser?”  —Mark Pawlak

“I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you, he said,/which meant what exactly?”   —Liz Rosenberg

“Because we know our lives will end/Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.”   —Charles Harper Webb

It’s just a hunch, but we think Collins is a better poet for not being able to articulate a thing about poetry.

“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”


  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 4, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Mike Young’s HTMLGIANT blog has a great list of 41 moves of contemporary poetry.

    It’s an interesting commentary in light of ‘Poetry: Comedy For People Who Aren’t Funny’ because most of these contemporary moves are the equivalent of bad punning. They’re damn awful. The poem as weak joke.

    Also, I have a feeling they’re not even contemporary. I think they can all be found in Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, and Byron.

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 4, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Yes, the majority of Mike Young’s examples are like stand up routines, Tom, I can see that, and your list of earlier proponents spot on, Byron in particular.

    And of course there are lots of earlier poets who regularly employed just such “moves,” most of them proponents of light verse, like Lewis Carroll, Hilaire Belloc and Edward Lear, and all sorts of satirists. especially in the theatre. The only really serious poet that I can think of who used “moves” like these more recently, and hugely effectively too, was Edna St Vincent Millay — because, of course, she understood that real life is itself a stand up routine, and lovers in particular compulsive players on the edge of the bed.

    The whole list reminds me of Stephen Burt’s ‘New Thing’ essay a bit — perhaps because in that essay too there was such a dysjunction between the moves he was illustrating and the poetry. I wondered why he wanted to identify a movement that was made up largely of non-poetry.

    That’s not Mike Young’s concern, obviously, and I don’t think he’ll mind if I say his list comes over as a sort of pop installation. But it’s well-presented and it’s funny — overheard in the rag and bone shopping-mall of the heart.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 4, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Readers of Scarriet know we love lists and Mike Young’s Move list is a feast, with lots of good examples.

    As far as the snippy attitude expressed on Mike’s site, we’re not going to stoop to that.

    “oh god. not you.
    once again you miss the point completely. please go away.” —Matt Covert

    “Can’t say I agree with you. I like poetry. I like contemporary poetry. Duh these “moves” are not new. Most moves aren’t. That’s why we chose the word moves. Have some good faith.” —Mike Young

    Anyway, I hope there’s no hard feelings, Mike. Again, thanks for the list.

  4. mike young said,

    February 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Hi y’all,

    I don’t agree with either of you about contemporary poetry, but hey, I don’t like gilded butterflies either. Regardless, I’m happy to hear you had fun reading the list. Whatever spirit you read it in, weird to me or not, I’m sincerely glad it didn’t add to what’s obviously a lot of negative feeling in the feeling space y’all reserve for poetry.

    Some minor comprehension housecleaning: HTMLGIANT is a public blog, not my personal site, and the list was a collaborative effort between me and Elisa Gabbert, who—incidentally—is a thoughtful, fun (which is different than funny, probably, though she’s funny too) and terrific contemporary poet.

    Millay ’12,

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2010 at 8:17 pm


    You’re building a straw man with that “gilded butterflies” remark. It’s clear to me you haven’t read Scarriet.

    I sense a panicky? freaky? suave? defense of contemporary poetry on your part and fear your defensive? erudite? zany? posture is causing you to assume we allow our love of old poetry to eclipse appreciation of the new. This is a hurried? yuk yuk? slightly bemused? misreading on your part. That’s why we discuss these things, so that two points of view might meet in the middle, over a cup of Billy Collins: Do you like the way he playfully uses the past? Do you find him funny? Do you think he has a pedagogical strategy? But you aren’t engaging on any sort of level like this; you are merely deflecting us with “gilded butterflies.”

    You have what I might term the ‘inverted pyramid’ view of poetry, with the narrow end representing narrow old poetry and the wide end representing the multi-faceted, nuanced, new poetry, and you’re thinking, ‘How can these people defend that narrow end?’ Believe me, I understand the nature of your complaint, and I also understand how the ‘inverted pyramid’ view makes you think? laugh? cry? the way you do. We’re staking out ground (with steaks! mistakes?) and that ground includes the past and (we hope) the future; we have nothing against contemporary poetry, per se. We love contemporary poetry, or post avant poetry, or whatever name you want to give it right now.

    Thanks for the HTMLGIANT clarification.

    Hi, Emily Gabbert! Sorry we slighted you! You probably heart us even less than Mike Young! But we heart you!

    To fun, funny or not,