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Collins Brings Authority To ‘The Writer’s Almanac’

What Followed Your Birth

You might not like being reminded

of your birthday, Father said,

but your mother & I do. Your

birth was a happy occasion.

What followed was both good

& bad. That was to be expected,

but what we didn’t expect was

that you’d be the last of your friends

to get a job, which you still haven’t

gotten yet. It just took you longer

to get started. You had to go back

to school. That wouldn’t have been so bad

if you were learning something, but

after all these years to still not know

what you want for a present doesn’t

speak well for education.

This is a poem read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac a month ago. Am I alone in finding it pretty bad? More radical still, am I alone in finding that with Keillor’s succession by Billy Collins the quality of the daily poems on that radio spot has improved significantly?

Mind you, I owe not a thing to Billy Collins, am repaying no debt here. Indeed, Collins’ anthology, the text for this year’s Vermont Reads program, as sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, excludes the Vermont poet laureate. That doesn’t matter. It’s a good anthology. It’s better, I believe, than Keillor’s own Pretty Good Poems ... which also excludes me. (A lot of poets who regard themselves as sophisticated dislike Billy Collins himself. Not me. I like him at his best, and rarely dislike him even at less than his best. My suspicion is that the sophisticates’ real beef with him is that he is — gasp — so popular.)

Keillor’s problem, I think, no matter how grateful I am for his casting a spotlight on poetry, including my own, is that pretty good often tends for him to be the high bar, with notable exceptions like poems by the likes of William Matthews or B.H. Fairchild. Thus, many of the poems he chose that went under that bar were as weak the one above.

Why do I say it is weak? Well, one of the things I have been stressing in my library visits, which now number 80, is the way in which a good poem can make us contemplate the same situation from several different angles of vision, and can do so simultaneously. That’s poetry’s distinction, and for me, its delight. The poem above , on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as a one-line joke. Such a joke may occasion laughter — though I didn’t even get a snicker out of What Followed Your Birth — but after you’ve heard it once, you aren’t apt to go back to it.

Of course, we all know that Billy Collins writes jokey poems himself.

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students’ innocence

he told them the Ice Age was really just

the Chilly Age, a period of a million years

when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,

named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more

than an outbreak of questions such as

“How far is it from here to Madrid?”

“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,

and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom

for the playground to torment the weak

and the smart,

mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home

past flower beds and white picket fences,

wondering if they would believe that soldiers

in the Boer War told long, rambling stories

designed to make the enemy nod off.

What’s so deft about this poem, it seems to me, what so completely distinguishes it from the other, is not the genuine laughs it provides; nor is it the sad commentary on how feckless we are in our efforts to sustain innocence amid a world of war and bullying; nor is it the evocation of the teacher’s palpable awkwardness; nor is it the ambiguity of the teacher’s person (are his motives noble or craven or, most intriguingly, both? does he seek to delude the kids out of concern for them or because he is lazy, or, again, both?). No, it is the coexistence of all these motifs, and more, that makes it so successful.

The humor is part of the pathos, and vice-versa. The teacher’s fumbling efforts echo those of the poet, who is also trying to make everything, including his poem, come right against all odds. And the author’s language, so apparently and deliberately artless, seems to me exactly on the money. How much sadness and hope and despair, what brute realism and what longing are compacted into a passage like this:

The children would leave his classroom

for the playground to torment the weak

and the smart,

mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home

past flower beds and white picket fences...

The very imagery of the picket fences and the flowerbeds strikes me as brilliantly selected. Conversely, it seems notable to me that the poem I quoted at the outset contains no imagery at all. It seems, that is, unconcerned with creating a flesh-and-blood world in which we may, so to speak, move around and live and breathe. Its poet is too eager to get to the punch line; everything that precedes it is mere set-up for that.

The author of What Followed Your Birth is first and foremost, I’m informed, a slam poet, and that fact allows me to respond in a general way to something that’s often asked of me in the Q&A following one of my presentations. What do I think of slam poetry? Well, fact is, I like it. I think it’s entertaining. I have even heard a slam poem or two that I felt was, if scarcely in a class with The History Teacher, well, pretty good. (Vermont Slam Master Geof Hewitt is pretty consistently first-rate.) But by its very nature the slam format seems to call forth the likes of the poem to which I am objecting here: a poem whose aim is for quick and clever effect. Given its circumstances, we can’t expect it to be genuinely contemplative, as, I think, the Collins poem above emphatically is in the end. Nor can we expect it to invite genuine contemplation from its hearer.

Perhaps Garrison Keillor was attracted to What Followed Your Birth , and to several others by the same writer that he read over time in his NPR slot, precisely because he is a man who has himself made a career of improvisatory, quick effect, usually of a comic kind. He is, I’ll grant, awfully good at that.

English teachers — and I don’t exempt myself from the very charge I level here — often make a distinction between technique and content, form and substance. For a writer, I’d argue, this distinction is a false or at least an impoverished one. Were we to “translate” a poem by Emily Dickinson, say, into free verse format, all that we vaguely label its meaning would be utterly altered, all that — with equal vagueness — we call its music would evaporate. It’s the way that its words are put together that makes it poetry, after all.

I’m wary, as my readers and hearers know, of asserting a given piece of writing is “not poetry,” period. And yet, though perhaps I am wrong, I can’t imagine a loss of any kind to the poem with which I opened if it were simply written down as the prose passage it so starkly resembles.

You might not like being reminded

of your birthday, Father said,

but your mother & I do. Your

birth was a happy occasion.

Would anything be sacrificed if the “Your” of that third line were dropped to begin the fourth, which would seem its proper place anyhow? Or consider

to school. That wouldn’t have been so bad

if you were learning something, but

Is there some imperative for “to school” to be juxtaposed with “That wouldn’t be so bad”? And why on earth does the next line end on so inconsequential a word as “but?” So on.

All right. I don’t mean to whip any dead horses, and again, I don’t want to pose as the assured authority I scarcely resemble, even (or especially) to myself. I simply believe that the poem I have criticized fails to provide the rich and various perspective I treasure in good lyric, and that its language is utterly undistinguished. But maybe what I’m really getting at here is: Welcome to the Almanac, Billy. Be well, keep doing good work, and keep on keeping in touch.

Related

Letter: Poet Laureate Isn’t Doing His Job

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

To the Editor: Vermont poet laureate Sydney Lea’s July 5 Valley News column (“Collins Brings Authority to ‘The Writer’s Almanac’ ”) opens with a poem called What Followed Your Birth. Lea dismisses the poem as “pretty bad” and never bothers to name the poet. The poet who wrote What Followed Your Birth is Hal Sirowitz, former poet laureate of Queens, …