Compile a list of topics Americans feel compelled to form an opinion about—global warming, the job performance of Obama, the fate of Jon and Kate—and “contemporary poetry” will rank near the bottom. Most Americans, though, are not ROFTERs. If you’re a ROFTER you’re inevitably faced with deciding whether you can truly claim to be a true “Reader of First Things” when you read every article and book review yet skip over most of the poems. (Me: Yes you can.) And if you’re a ROFTER who works with poets Paul Lake, Sally Thomas, and Jody Bottum you feel an extra sense of obligation to think of something smart to say about the subject. After all, you never know when it might come up at the watercooler.
So lacking suitable knowledge about the topic, or even the criteria necessary to develop an informed opinion, I’ve decided the best approach is to be able to answer the “Who’s your favorite…” question. (It works for music and sports; why not poetry?) If anyone asks—and really, I’m surprised that in the three months I’ve worked here they haven’t yet inquired—my favorite poet is Billy Collins. And my favorite poem by Collins is Forgetfulness . . . even though I’ve never actually read it.
In fact, I’ve never actually read any of Collins’ poems. I’ve listened to the former poet laureate read dozens of his poems but have never seen his words on the page. (Though I assume they’re written down somewhere.)
I first discovered the work of Collins after stumbling across Billy Collins Action Poetry, a brilliant series of eleven poems, each set to short animated films by various artists. Along with such standouts as The Country and Walking Across the Atlantic I found this gem:
I suspect I’m not alone in preferring Collins’ poems in aural soundbites rather than on book-bound pages. In 1997, he recorded The Best Cigarette, a collection of thirty-four of his poems that became a bestseller (they were later re-released under a Creative Commons license, allowing free, non-commercial distribution of the recording). He also recorded Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City which still—four years later—outsells almost all books of poetry published every year.
Judging the relative worth of an art form by Amazon rankings is just the sort of dumbed-down cultural evaluation that we Americans love (Me: Guilty).
But is the consensus gentium necessarily wrong? Is it wrong to prefer poetry in performance to poetry in print? Is it a sign of middlebrowdom to think that Collins’ words should be heard (preferably being read by the author) rather than seen? Is it akin to preferring the accessible “smooth jazz” of Kenny G to the quirky innovations of Ornette Coleman? Or can it be that spoken poetry is a transvaluation of expected formats, the way Shakespeare’s dramas are richer on the page than they are on the stage?
In other words, is Billy Collins repackaging a form of slam poetry for literate yuppies or is he restoring an oral tradition that will open new audiences for contemporary poetry?
I’m hoping that our poets-in-residence—after cringing at my philistinism—will feel compelled to form an opinion on these questions.