When one calls a poet’s work accessible, one is usually committing an act of calumny. Billy Collins is the poster child of accessible poetry. His crystal-clear lyrics have burned the ass of more than a few poet-critics; to be precise, it is his enormous success that smolders under their seats. Collins shrugs off such criticism as sour grapes from the same gentlefolk who cry, over snifters of sangiovese and wheels of Brie, about poetry’s diminutive stature. Despite being dismissed by a large portion of poetry’s advance guard, Collins is racking up the sales, accolades, prizes, and fans in drop-dead numbers, unlike any other American poet today. Three months ago, I bum-rushed a Minnetonka synagogue to see the poet laureate in action. Billy Collins packed the pews. As part of an author lecture series, presented by the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, Collins read before a rapt audience of nearly 900.
Nestled against the southern end of Lake Windsor, whose reeds undoubtedly give shelter to the ducks and geese that fly honking by overhead, Adath Jeshurun Congregation is stunning. The sanctuary punctuates the natural setting with a towering wall of Kasota stone, quarried in Minnesota, the rustic beauty and sheer stature of which make most speakers seem simultaneously bigger than life and utterly insignificant. These people weren’t your come-as-you-are word nerds but fine, upstanding people in business suits and wool skirts who are probably very reasonable most of the time but who paid between $25 and $42 to see Billy Collins read poetry.
I was somewhat disoriented—the suburbs, the synagogue, hundreds of people who love poetry (or at least like it well enough to pay to hear it recited) but it was clear to me that the crowd was having a blast. Listening attentively, they encouraged Collins with laughter and empathetic sighs of understanding. He reciprocated, and together they built a bridge between audience and poet. If not for the setting, I’d have thought I was at a comedy club where the comic was blazing and the audience dying to laugh. In fact, Collins read his poems in a deadpan monotone à la Steven Wright. (Coincidentally, there is more than a little resemblance between the two.) Nearly every poem elicited laughter and a good number of guffaws. Between poems, Collins entertained the adoring mass with one-liners, thoughts on the catalysts for poems, and humorous anecdotes regarding his writing process: “When I’m not writing about you, I’m writing about me, which is most of the time.” How can you not chuckle at such cheeky honesty? His humor is inviting to listeners and readers; it forges a camaraderie between them. The language and imagery he uses are fresh enough not to be trite, but familiar enough to be recognized quickly and without much head scratching. I can’t help thinking that the appeal of accessible poetry, especially when it incorporates humor, might be that reasonable, intelligent people get to feel as if they’re in on the joke, in on the meaning. Unlike the experience of reading the tortured verse of some genius caught in the vicious realization that language is complicated and life is uncertain. We know that already. Billy Collins is a rare breed: He makes a living as a poet. We didn’t know that was possible.
Of course, there’s a bit of class warfaring going on here, in poetry as everywhere else. Generally speaking, the middle class prefers the accessible, because not “getting it” makes them feel dopey and inadequate; and the upper class prefers the difficult, because they never feel inadequate, and they enjoy it if everyone else does. Poets and artists alike have become the clowns of the aristocrats. It’s not a coincidence that the arts in general, and poetry in particular, are subsidized industries, sequestered down the halls of academia and nonprofits. Ours has become a connoisseur culture—from beer to water to cheese to olives to paint to shoes to toilet paper to cars and politicians and, yes, to poetry. Connoisseurism is a sophisticated kind of consumerism and is insidious, because it invades a culture under the banner of quality but quickly morphs into a kind of I’m-better-than-you brickbat. There’s nothing wrong with a good microbrew, but it doesn’t make you a better person for drinking it. I wish it would. The same goes for poetry. Our poetry covers a narrower path than it should and, consequently, it occupies a smaller niche in American culture than it should. Its specialized nature is the result of pruning away most everything that is unsightly and unruly, including the comedic.