Tuesday, April 09, 2002

This post is still getting hits from search engines. If you came here looking for information on Billy Collin's "Paradelle for Susan" I should advise you that my comments below are, to put it simply, dead wrong. The "paradelle" is Collin's own invention, a kind of gentle satire on elaborate verse forms and facile technique. Go here to listen to an interview with Collins that lets the more dense of us in on the joke. The ironic thing though, is that others have since picked up the form and written fine poems in it, making my point in a kind of backhanded fashion. In any event, as the person who corrected my error pointed out, a gag that takes on a life of its own is a thing of wonder in itself.

I have been reading Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems by Billy Collins, our current Poet Laureate. Collins is, by current standards, an enormously popular and critically respected poet. Or, as his agent puts it: "Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal." Big words, and, truth be told, Collins can be a good read, judging by this volume. Nevertheless, I put it down feeling vaguely unsettled. Collins' work, while head and shoulders above what passes for poetry in most small magazines, still shows the signs of one of the great illness of modern poetry; the loss of craft. Exhibit number one is a piece called "Paradelle for Susan." The note at the end of the poem says that "The paradelle is one of the most demanding French fixed forms . . ." Collins' poem turns what should be a tour de force into a clumsy mess that follows form only by abandoning grammar. Perhaps it is meant as parody. Perhaps the breakdown in grammar itself is meant to be a poetic statement. Perhaps it is simply that the form is beyond the poet's technical competence.

I do not mean to be unfair to Collins. He has preserved more of a sense for meter (or at least stress and accent) than most of his contemporaries working outside traditional forms. He is not above the occasional use of rhyme. Far too often however the conventions of typography substitute for the craft of verse. Sometimes this is no hindrance. I quite liked the poem "Japan," on reading and re-reading a haiku. Haiku, a seventeen syllable Japanese form, meant to be spoken, in English is more a visual form; its three line break, one short, one long, one short, as typographically distinct as a sonnet is metrically. The poem begins:

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

The image, while a little precious, is exactly right. The two stanzas look like haiku, even have a haiku feel. But the syllable count and the line breaks are wrong. The poem works, but only at the cost of abandoning the true form of its subject.

Too many poems in this volume are prose with line breaks. The only way to read it as verse is ponderously, dragging out syllables, or rushing here, inserting an accent there, even if it is not found in the verse itself. As Robert Frost put it in his poem "How Hard It Is To Keep From Being King":

Free verse leaves out the metre and makes up
For the deficiency by church intoning.
Free verse so called is really cherished prose,
Prose made of, given an air by church intoning.
It has its beauty, only I don't write it.

I don't mean to be unduly negative. There are good things here. "Osso Buco" made me ready to abandon Lent after one reading. "Man Listening to Disc" is a fine evocation of the joys and ironies of technologically assisted modern life. Read Collins. After all, he is our Poet Laureate, even if he is no Robert Frost.

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