Joe asks if the popularity of Billy Collins’ audio recordings is good for poetry . I am no poet-in-residence at First Things , but I would like to answer a revised version of Joe’s question: Is Billy Collins’ popularity itself good for poetry? My answer: “Yes.”
Leaving the issue of talent aside for the moment, one of the reasons Billy Collins is so popular is that he writes for a general rather than specialized audience. Like Wordsworth, Collins understands the poet to be “a man speaking to men” rather than a poet speaking to (aspiring or accomplished) poets. Wordsworth’s definition of a poet as “a man speaking to men” is, I think, an apt description of the modus operandi of some of the best poets in English, past and present. This does not mean that these poets write for a general audience alone. To state the obvious, there are a number of levels of significance and a good deal of formal innovation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets , for example, or in Frost’s lyrics. Specialized knowledge, however, is not required to enjoy these poems.
While Collins’ poems sometime lack multiple levels of significance or formal play, which for me at least, can make him a bit boring on occasion, this is preferable to poets who seem to be interested in nothing but formal play or multiple levels of signification. In such cases, the result is often a poem that is as predictable as Collins’ (albeit in its own “innovative” way) without the initial surface interest. Such poems, it seems to me, are often written for poets alone (and perhaps with the purpose of securing a teaching post alone), and while they are sometimes treated as being of greater literary value than Collins’ poems because of their supposed technical innovation, I think the best poems are both accessible and innovative, both written for the general reader and the aficionado , at the same time.
Collins is good for poetry to the extent that he reminds usin a roundabout sort of waythat poetry should serve a certain public good (whether that good is to provide pleasure or to challenge accepted beliefs), and that this good does not have to come at the expense of formal innovation (even if it perhaps sometimes does in Collins’ case).