Dec '02 [Home]


Billy Collins:  The Laureate to Designate the Palliate of the Populate

by Patrick Henry

. . .

Billy Collins spoke on BBC Radio in London in March 2002 with English female poet Jo Shapcott and read out some poems. His quest, he said, was to liberate poetry from its customary immersion in misery, disaster and negative attitudes. These, he thought, had been particularly compounded by the 19th century Romantics in the way they located it in landscape and nature, and by its melancholy, doomed aspects highly prone to pathetic fallacy. They neglected fine legacies of poetry inherent in human figurations of sexual pleasure and humour of all kinds.

Collins's work seems like that of a columnist in a smart magazine:  comfortable prose arranged as if to approximate forms of verse, studded in gaudy images, glib opinions and disconnected flights of whimsy. Even viewed as a columnist's output, it is crucially lacking in social and historical depth. As poetry, it fails much more on the grounds next mentioned.

Achievement in actual life is appreciated in how it survives trouble and trauma to sometimes reach liberation and resolution. The same is true of poetry, as it seeks to mirror complete experience. The poet feels called to his role to demonstrate the vivid energy of language when used with the most appropriate respect. But also, he is impelled by his gift and insight in this medium to explore through it the hard challenges that life presents. Pathos, hubris and catharsis are essential to his approach. Agendas of musical form, philosophic and social considerations are also required for a proper practise of poetry.

Modern poetry has found contemporary issues and expressiveness while retaining the timeless strengths of form, fable and erudition, notably in the work of Yeats, Owen, Auden, Frost and Lowell. Plenty of scope exists for this to develop further.

If the views of Collins and Shapcott prevail, poetry will be little more than soap-opera scripts or fanciful copywriting on both sides of the Atlantic.

(A poet and painter, Patrick Henry is the magazine's chief contributing editor in U.K. Presently on an extended stay in Australia, he lives in Yorkshire.)