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.

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