A poem is like an eye chart

The job of the poet is to seduce the reader – 

– According to Billy Collins it is “about achieving a balance between “clarity and mystery. It’s important to know which card to turn over and which to lay face-down. But the beginning of a poem should always be very clear, to get a reader on board, and only then can you be confident that when you move into less obvious areas of metaphor or fantasy that they will go with you. It is like an eye chart, with its big E at the top, and the letters getting less legible as it moves along. A poem should be like that.”

Collin’s view on poetry is interesting also from the point of view of the critic, and for ‘the art industry’.

“I have spoken a lot about willful obscurity in poetry – where the poet is hiding behind language, using it as camouflage – and I don’t have much tolerance for that kind of poetry,” 

We find exactly the same problem in the art world; critics and curators obscuring the art for the viewer. I have just recently started to wonder if this is a negative inheritance from Arthur Danto … but have to make more research to know for sure.

Collins says: A poem is a projection of the most private aspects of the self, which has the capacity to move even – or especially – a stranger.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. I am new to poetry, and find your posts helpful. Next week I will participate in a 10-week online course sponsored by University of Pennsylvania, called ModPo to learn about American poets. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsE6f0hbHwI) It’s a start.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Sounds like a great start!

  2. Harold Rhenisch says:

    A Billy Collins poem is like an eye chart. That’s likely a better statement. Collins’ form of populism and willful obscurity are neither opposites nor the only choices. For one of Collins’ ideal readers, someone who has never read a poem before, except perhaps one or two in high school, his strategy is useful, but it has many limitations, including the big one that from the point of view of his strategy ANYthing else is willful obscurity. Besides, I’m pretty sure the job of a poet is to write a poem. Because American poetry is full of the post avante and all kinds of posturing made up in grad schools doesn’t mean Collins is the only antidote, nor one applicable to people elsewhere in the world. Does a Hauge poem work this way? Not for me. Does a poem by Cavafy work this way? Hardly. Does a poem by Char work this way? Never. What about an Alice Oswald poem? Nope. Big confession: as a poet, I find Collins unreadable. He is very popular, though, so it’s pretty clear that what he does and the audience he does it for love each other. Nonetheless, in the big picture, does reducing a history of dynamic and complex thought to the simplicity of, say, Piet Hein, really help poetry (or art criticism) in the end? Perhaps our job is to provide richer experiences rather than reductive ones, whether they be Hein’s silliness, Collins’ populism, or the narcissism of the post avante (or much deconstructive art criticism). Yes to simplicity. Yes as well to complexity. Besides, Collins is so quintessentially American, he’s likely no help to anyone who wishes to be human in a different way, unless, perhaps, he’s read with that in mind. 🙂

  3. beaumontjones says:

    I love Billy Collins’ poem Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’. The language is simple, light-hearted and beautiful. Collins’ poem itself is as layered as Dickinson’s garments. He leaves us with no easy interpretation of his own or of Dickinson poems. Rather, he opens up spaces for speculation about the woman herself and her poetry.

  4. Rio says:

    I can die now.
    My entire life,
    this sky.

  5. I like Collins, sometimes. He convinces people to try to read poetry. Some of his work is really transporting. I also like much of Mary Oliver’s work–both of these poets are considered “accessible.” Certainly not deconstructivist. Indeed, I think they aim to be understood at first read; their best poems require several readings, however. And here is where I tend to agree with Mr. Rhenisch: “Yes to simplicity. Yes as well to complexity.”
    Americans, I find, are impatient with complexity and tend to confuse complexity with mere busy-ness and irrelevance. Speaking as a US citizen, here.

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