Sunday, April 10, 2011

Billy Collins' "Grave"

Neal Conan interviewed Billy Collins on Talk of the Nation last week for Collins' new book of poems, Horoscopes for the Dead.  As always, Collins gave a great interview, like or dislike what he had to say.  Collins has a very smooth, quiet demeanor, and he knows how to answer questions as well as read poems.  Nothing worse than a good on-the-page poet whose performance skill is sub-par.  And, its hard not to appreciate Collins' ideas on poetry at large, that it should be accessible to everyone, not just to poets.  His own work certainly demonstrates he practices what he preaches.

But its precisely for this reason that I've never fallen in love with his poetry.  One of my buddies in grad school said his work was "suburban," that he may be one of America's first "suburban" poets, neither highfalutin and removed nor gritty and involved -- but comfortable, easy, and well, I'm not exactly sure what.  Whether suburban is an accurate description of his work or not, I don't really know.  I've just never been grabbed by his language or his risk taking, which for the longest time I saw as missing altogether.

However, while thinking about what makes Collins a suburban poet, I came to realize his lack of what I consider risk in a poem is one of his risks.  There is a common misbelief that (good) poetry must not only be insightful but difficult.  Much of Collins' work flies in the face of the second half of that notion.  He's wildly popular as a result, at least partially I would argue.  Very few of his poems meander lyrically, are esoteric, require a particularly erudite reader, and pose few literal and metaphorical leaps.  Rather they are often very-heavily narrative (thus easy to follow), prosy (thus easy to read), and full of common language and images he provides in a realistic, as opposed to a surrealistic, fashion (thus easy to understand).

Talk of the Nation provides 4 poems from Collins' new book, Horoscopes for the Dead, on the webpage for the April 6 interview's accompanying article.  I'm taking a look at "Grave" for no other reason than it is the first poem of the batch.  In a nutshell, the speaker in "Grave" is visiting the graves of his dead parents.  He lays down beside them, so to speak, and describes the conversation they have about his new glasses by way of discussing the various "one hundred kinds of silence / according to the Chinese belief."  The mode of this poem is pretty standard for Collins: short narrative, readable language, no difficult metaphorical leaps.  The only undisguised metaphor is the lovely simile in the last line, which compares the "Silence of the Lotus" to "petals."

First, I'm going to consider this poem's pace in its relationship to the poem's ease and readability, its prosiness and its tension.  After all, this poem -- and many of Collins' poems -- may be prosy, but it is not sloppy.  There is a consistency of line that makes the language work and the piece be successful.

"Grave" is composed of three sentences.  The first stretches across four tercets, the last across five, and the middle across one and an extra line.  Each line contains roughly 4 accented beats and is about the same length as every other, last line excepting.  Barely half of these (16) are enjambed and none of them ruthlessly.  In fact, every line maintains an integrity of idea and/or picture, creating a comfortable read for pretty well any reader. While there is no distinct rhythm created by an arrangement of syllables, no meters and ghost meters, the consistent line lengths and their integrity of thought creates a rhythm of its own, thereby controlling pace.  That shortish, middle sentence helps with this, too.  The preceding and ensuing sentences are long, the first a double-complex sentence (I guess you could call it) and the last the same, both made of 2-3 independent clauses and a number subordinate clauses, some of which interrupt the sentence-flow but do so only for the duration of a line.  Consider the third stanza.  The speaker is describing his mother's initial answer to his question, "What do you think of my new glasses", which is silence:
one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief
each one distinct from the others,

Collins' two long sentences in "Grave" ramble on a bit, but they are easily readable.  They are conversational, which I also think makes them comfortable.  Because of their construction, their air seems familiar.  And that's no easy feat, considering poetry is about compression and music and prosy poems can too easily become prosaic and dull.  But Collins is a strict task-master of his line; none escape his control.  The only line in "Grave" that sort of breaks this construction is the last line, and that's not because Collins has lost his grip on it.  Simply put, that line sticks out, literally.  But it's the last line of the poem and is designed, I'm sure, to resonate with  readers.  So Collins literally gives it more weight.

The other thing "Grave" has going for it is its use of the inner and outer worlds.  Often I find that prosaic poems get lost in action -- they become a list of actions -- in order to keep themselves going: this happens, then this happens, then this, that, the other, etc.  "Grave" uses action to set the scene, then it moves internally, and we get the speaker's thoughts and reflections.  This keeps the poem in timeless space so much good poetry resides in, keeps it in that place distinctly poetry and not prose.  Thus, "forward" progress akin to plot never occurs.  Instead the poem moves inward, which is where its reward is.

And, as he did with his consistent line, Collins works into and out of his speaker with a clear control.  The basic, straightforward cores of his sentences contain the poem's basic narrative, and if I pull them out, we'll get the basic story: "What do you think of my new glasses / I asked as I stood under a shade tree / before the joined grave of my parents, // and what followed was a long silence / that descended on the rows of the dead / and on the fields and the woods beyond // .... They make you look very scholarly, / I heard my mother say / once I lay down on the ground // and pressed an ear into the soft grass. / Then I rolled over and pressed / my other ear to the ground, // the ear my father likes to speak into, / but he would say nothing, / ..."  That's 14 lines worth of outer world, roughly half of the poem, and it flows perfectly well when put together.  The other 16 lines of the poem are comprised of inner-world data, of info about the different kinds of silence, "according to the Chinese belief," and they are the tacked-on pieces to the sentences.  The result is that the poem is very well balanced between these two worlds, and Collins creates this balance with a consistent construction that is easy to follow: outer-world core sentence, inner-world add-on; outer-world complete, short sentence; outer-world core sentence, inner-world add-on.  The lyric is first grounded in narrative.  Even the least adroit readers will know where things stand.

So a consistency of line and of content, of that shifting from outer experience to inner world, makes "Grave" click.  I haven't read much Billy Collins in a long time, but my recollection of his poems is that they are typically written in a similar way.  Certainly those accompanying Grave per NPR fit the mold.  As a result, they are easy to read and follow whether you are a poet or not, whether you are a reader of poems or not.  You know how to breathe each line, where to pause, where the inflections go, and a dictionary isn't necessary.  Is all this a bad thing?  I personally know some poets who hate this sort of thing in poetry.  But I say accessible, if done well, is successful.

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