POETRY: COMEDY FOR PEOPLE WHO AREN’T FUNNY?

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is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”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.”