All right, Joe, I’ll bite, though I hesitate to accept a title like “poet-in-residence” for the simple reason that I haven’t actually written much poetry in the last five years.
A prosaic turn of mind hasn’t stopped me, however, from thinking about poetry. Poetry-as-aural-experience is a fact of life in my house, so I’m hardly disposed to say that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m an avid reader-aloud of poetry, especially to my children, and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen (again, my children, who really have no choice) that it’s our ears primarily, not our eyes, which remember poems.
So far, so good, right? But here’s what I wonder about Billy Collins: how much of his poetry is the kind of thing our ears not only receive, but remember? How many of his lines return unbidden into the mind once we’ve finished listening to them? Wordsworth wrote, “The music in my heart I bore/Long after it was heard no more.” I’m not prepared right this second to die for the idea that this, and nothing else, is what defines poetry, but—well, how much Billy Collins do you bear in your heart, long after he’s stopped talking?
Actually, I know how I’d answer that question. I can recite one Billy Collins line off the top of my head: “And here is your lanyard.” Make of that what you will.
Before five hundred people write in to repeat for me all their favorite Billy Collins passages, committed to heart as people used commonly to commit sacred scripture, let me qualify what I just said. It’s not that you can’t memorize Billy Collins’s poetry if you want to. In fact, if you’ve got it on CD and listen to it a lot, I would imagine that you have in fact memorized a good bit more than I have. I would argue, however, that this isn’t exactly the same thing as memorizing poetry written to appeal to the ear via the traditional aural devices of rhyme and meter. You may be able to call up passages, even whole poems, at will. But I’m not sure that this act of remembering is the same act by which we recall poetry.
Let me give you an example. Billy Collins has, in England, a children’s-poet counterpart named Michael Rosen. Now, as for me and my house, we are tremendous fans of Michael Rosen. Among other things, he has written an excellent book on Shakespeare for children, but the reason my children love him is that, in about 2000 or 2001, while we were living in Cambridge, we happened to check out from the library an audiobook of his poems, entitled Just Wait Till I’m Older Than You.
I think we may very possibly still owe overdue fines on this tape. We listened to it, and we listened to it, and we listened to it, and then we listened to it some more. When we left England in 2003, I was almost tempted to check it out again and drop it into a packing box by premeditated mistake. As it turned out, I didn’t have to, because as a family we have most of it committed to memory anyway and can recite entire poems off the top of our collective head.
The thing is, though, that this isn’t really like reciting poetry. I’m not sure what these poems look like on the page, but they don’t seem to be rhymed or metered (though to be fair, many poets read right through their line endings, and you don’t know that poems rhyme unless you chance to read them). These poems play on the ear like stories—hilariously funny stories, which is really why we remember them, but stories. In short, they might as well be prose. They’d lose nothing by being written in paragraphs, not stanzas. When we recite bits of them aloud, we sound more like people repeating their favorite lines from a Monty Python sketch than people participating in the great oral tradition of poetry:
“The car’s moving!”
“I know the car’s moving!”
“Look at the peaches!”
“Never mind the peaches!”
See what I mean? For those of us who know the whole story, these are funny lines. For the rest of you—well, I’ll have to tell you the story sometime. And here is your lanyard.
Meanwhile, there was one other book—an actual book, this time, not a tape—which I was sorely tempted to check out on a permanent and illicit basis from the public library of Cambridgeshire. Now that I think of it, we probably still owe fines on this one, too. It was a book of poetry for children, by a Cornishman named Charles Causley, and it was as irresistible to me as it was to my children.
There was, and is, a pleasure on an entirely different level from “recalling the funny bits” in saying aloud a poem which begins, “Here’s Reverend Rundle/His gear in a bundle,” or
Good morning, Mr. Croco-doco-dile,
And how are you today?
I like to see you croco-smoco-smile
In your croco-woco-way.
These poems were often funny; they were often lyrical and even—and this is unusual in children’s poetry—haunting. They were wonderful to read aloud and to hear, not only because what they had to say was funny, or lyrical, or haunting, but in their music, in the very pleasure they took in their own sound.
This is a quality, incidentally, not confined to Causley’s poetry for children. In fact, as the Charles Causley Society’s website points out,
It is difficult to decide which of Causley’s poems can be classified as “children’s poems” since many of them contain several layers of experience.
It’s no slur against Causley’s reputation to say that my children can understand a poem like this or this as readily as they understand the “children’s” poems. And though Causley didn’t make a name for himself via recordings and animations, you can hear him read “Timothy Winters” and a selection of other poems at The Poetry Archive.
So . . . it may look as if I’d forgotten your original question, Joe, but I haven’t. No, I don’t think Billy Collins is killing poetry. But when I stand him up beside poets for whom the idea of an oral tradition of poetry means more than just “intelligible stuff you say out loud”—poets who write memorable music as well as accessible and repeatable lines—it seems to me that we don’ t have to settle for mere life-support, either.