Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

What does it take to kill a writer?

That’s a post over at The Electronic Girl talking about how, in fiction at least, there’s a sense that it’s easy to lose writers of great books to the memory of their movies. She uses as her primary example James Leo Herlihy, best known as the author of Midnight Cowboy. But he’s unknown, you say? That’s precisely the point–the movie made of his book is a classic, and the book, as usual, is even better, but how many people even know who he was?

That’s less an issue in poetry, because it’s rare that a poet even gets a biopic, much less an option on a poem for a screenplay. It’s also less an issue because there are fewer roads to stardom via poetry. When teaching my contemporary poetry class last night, I mentioned that, sadly, Billy Collins is about as close to rock-stardom as poets get–and you have to admit that that’s pretty sad–and of the 20 people in the class, 3 knew who he was, and that’s because they’d been in a class with me before and had heard this schtick. Who will be the big names that come out of this period, the late 20th century, early 21st century? And who will be those who Miller Williams wrote about in his poem “A Note to the English Poets of the Seventeenth Century,” where he said:

You’ve lost the ones that were hopelessly only good,
saying things that nobody else could say
and lucky to be heard in their own day.

Williams will likely be in that bunch, along with Collins and so many others. It’s tiring for me, at the beginning of my career, to think of things like immortality in my lines of poetry–I can’t imagine what it must be like once you’ve had a career and started to see it wind down a bit. And for those who have tasted fame like Herlihy, how badly that drop must have hurt.

May 13, 2008 Posted by | Billy Collins, James Leo Herlihy, Miller Williams, The Electronic Girl | Leave a comment

I’ll Never Make This Mistake Again

Way back in March, I posted the reading list for my summer class in Contemporary American poetry. Right about now, I’m feeling like Gob Bluth–“I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

I included Billy Collins’s Nine Horses for a couple of reasons. I’m focusing on the variety of voices in contemporary poetry, and while Collins’s voice is bland and generally inoffensive, it is an unfortunately popular voice outside much of the traditional poetic community. It was a chance, I thought, to give my students an accessible book, which could act as a breather in an intense, six week course. I should have read the book more closely before I did that.

No, I should have read the book before doing that.

I’ve found my angle of attack into this book, though. It’s a book that presents a world of out-of-touch privilege, and is sublimely unaware of just how privileged it is. It’s going to make a nice contrast to the in-your-face politics of Marge Piercy and the outsider-looking-in voice of Mohja Kahf.

There’s a series that begins with the poem “Paris” that’s really indicative of this voice. The speaker in “Paris” spends three pages musing on what he’s going to do after he finishes his bath in an apartment someone gave him. What paintings, what street signs will he see? What bridges will he lean against while he muses on the day? In “Istanbul,” the speaker glories in a Turkish bath, the servants pouring tub after tub of water on him, servants he thanks silently. In the next poem, “Love,” his speaker sits on a train watching a woman struggle with her cello case; in “Languor,” he speaks of redesigning his family coat of arms, et cetera, et cetera.

I could deal with the privilege better if there were any indication that Collins is aware of it, but there’s no ironic turn in it, no twist, no moment where his speaker is even conscious of the benefits he enjoys. It’s poetry for the oblivious upper-middle class white person, which may be its greatest sin of all.

May 5, 2008 Posted by | Billy Collins, privilege | Leave a comment