Billy Collins Goes Ballistic

January 26th, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Ballistics by Billy Collins

I adore Billy Collins. The way one adores a grandfather.

And I marvel at his poetry. The way one marvels at an enormous flock of birds swooping and diving in semi-unison beneath the pallid light of dusk before moving onto more serious, captivating matters. Like blogging.

To be sure, there is some you can criticize Collins about. His instantly recognizable, simple, understandable language, for example, can be regarded as safe. Or easy.

And as we all learned in grade school, poetry should be hard. And boring. Very, very boring.

T.S. Eliot Collins is not. Thank god.

And with Ballistics, Collins’ latest collection of poems, there is plenty of poetic warmth for those eager to snuggle up with the same familiar cardigan of a Collins poem.

He is still supremely playful and witty. His mastery of language is like that of a grandfather’s fluency with the rules of pinochle. And like a grandfather who tells the same jokes, Collins’ poetry is simultaneously predictable and enjoyable because it is completely inevitable while still surprising.

In the poem “January in Paris,” Collins takes Paul Valery’s quote, “Poems are never completed – they are only abandoned,” in order to imagine seducing a poem and “completing” her.

There are arrestingly sublime images and magnificent turns of phrase. From “Le Chien:”

For my part, I had mixed my drinks,
trading in the tulip of wine
for the sharp nettles of whiskey.

Tulip of wine and sharp nettles of whiskey. Quite nice, that. Quite nice.

But within Ballistics, there is some edge. And Collins seems to have grown a bit more ornery. A bit more Bukowski.

He muses on the various colloquialisms for drugs in “High.” He grumpily observes the inundation of his contemporary’s poems in The Poems of Others.”  In the title poem, Collins openly refers to “a recent collection of poems written by someone of whom I was not fond.”

In “The Effort,” Collins encourages us to “join me in flicking a few pebbles in the direction of teachers who are fond of asking the question: What is the poet trying to say?” He even refers to the “intolerable poetry of my compatriots.” And he begins “Liu Yung” with “This poet of the Sung dynasty is so miserable.”

We are all fans of Collins the Poet. Now let us praise Collins the Curmudgeon.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

January 25th, 2009 at 2:58 pm

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Reading, and certainly reviewing, a book of this stature so far removed from its original publication is like finally viewing Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in person. There’s too much baggage. What fresh perspective can be attained through the fog of museum gift shops glutted with mouse pads, t-shirts, and coffee mugs?

So it is with The Golden Compass. It’s won awards. It’s been involved in controversy for allegedly being anti-church. It’s been made into a movie.

But I wanted to read it. Because I’m always celebrating Banned Book Week.

And I was disappointed.

Which isn’t fair. It’s not bad, per se, and occasionally mildly entertaining. Pullman displays great creativity and imagination throughout the telling of his story. The characters are interesting and the plot moves at a brisk pace.

But the book just wasn’t for me.

Not because it’s intended for Young Readers and I’m pushing 30, but because, Michael Chabon forgive me, it’s a genre book.

Chabon, and many others, have implored us to respect “genre” fiction and treat it on the same level as the more universally accepted “literature.”

But I’m sorry. I can’t.

Because “genre” fiction like The Golden Compass has talking bears, and witches, and little creatures called daemons that accompany each and every individual, and trinkets that tell the operator whatever they ask if only they can figure out how to use it. Oh, how convenient…

For my limited time, money, and energy, there is a big difference between The Golden Compass and Animal Farm. My fantasy predilections begin and end somewhere around Lord of the Rings and Mervyn Peak’s masterwork The Gormenghast Novels.

And let me tell you something genre lovers, there is a big (BIG)  difference between The Golden Compass and Gormenghast.

Or even Terry Pratchett. Pratchett gets my time and money over Pullman any day.

Meh vs. Eh

January 21st, 2009 at 7:00 am

My review for David Sedaris’s latest book When You Are Engulfed in Flames consisted of one word:


I was nonplussed about Mr. Sedaris’s work to say the least.

Thus the eh. With maybe a shoulder shrug.

But my one-word review caused quite a stir amongst my clan over at Good Reads.

“Don’t you mean meh?” they ask.

No. No I don’t. Don’t doubt my diction. I mean eh.

Asking someone if they mean meh instead of eh is like asking them if they mean going instead of gonna. Of course they mean going. That’s not the point. Let’s have some fun. Let’s be casual. Let’s be colloquial. Let’s dip into the vernacular.

I am a big fan and proponent of gutteral utterances and nonsensical sounds replacing words. It places the focus on emotion and visceral reaction instead of hifallutin articulation and eloquence.

Consider it a holdover from the Bush Administration.