First, a preambulatory gem from Billy Collins’s 2004 lecture on Walt Whitman:
I’m going to talk about Walt Whitman today.
And I had written out a talk
and that took some time
and so I’m going to read it.
But I’m going to interrupt my reading
to talk about Whitman a little bit.
And before I actually read the paper
I wanted to say a couple of less
premeditated things about Whitman.
There are some people out there who genuinely like Billy Collins. He’s the clown, the poet-Bill to all the poet-Williams. He takes the starched underwear that is poetry and somehow makes it comfortable.
People make YouTube fan videos in which his poems roll out in fancy fonts across inspiring photographs of beaches and silhouettes in doorways. They go to his readings, and they laugh. They laugh at “Sonnet,” for instance, a long loud laugh at “well, thirteen now,” chuckles at “iambic bongos” and “make the turn,” and appreciative clapghter (a healthy mix of clapping and laughter) at the final line (take a listen if you don’t believe me). The poem’s appeal is its trivializing commentary on the form, and on the “crazy medieval” formality, of sonnets.
And yet Collins describes his own “Sonnet” as “a slightly more formal poem.” Puzzling, to say the least: it’s hard to imagine what a less formal poem would sound like.
“Sonnet” is unrhymed, has irregular line lengths (ranging from nine to fifteen syllables), and contains only three lines of potential iambic pentameter—4, 7, and 14. (I say potential because Collins’s delivery breaks some of these natural iambs.) There is nothing inherently wrong with these deviations, but “Sonnet” is simultaneously so near to formal ‘correctness’ and so haphazardly informal.
Think how easily line 6 could’ve read performatively: “and insist the iambic bongos must be played.” If you’re going to mock a poetic form, shouldn’t your mockery demonstrate your mastery?
In the end, these formal qualities (and tired, lifeless metaphors) suggest only lassitude. The form of “Sonnet” works neither to support nor to oppose its content because, I would argue, its form does not do ‘work’ at all. The preamble I began with—its ultimate non-necessity, its self-annihilation that reveals only vacuity—demonstrates exactly why I can’t stand Collins’s “Sonnet.” The only thing either utterance seems to produce is that veneer of readerly familiarity for which Collins is so loved.
Here’s the thing, Billy—and I know I can call you Billy—poetry isn’t so much starched underwear as it is going commando. So, yes, poetry can chafe a bit, at times, but the solution is not to slap on a pair of ‘Collins’s Own’ cotton briefs. Unless you don’t like going commando, in which case—it’s really okay, don’t sweat it—simply don’t read poetry.
[Editor’s Note: for more on the use of humour in poetry, you can check out Gabe Forman’s poems, and a review of them, here, or our interview with Ken Babstock.]
Andy Verboom is a PhD student at Western University in London, Ontario, where he studies settler colony discourse and indigenous literature in North America and the Pacific, with a focus on contemporary poetry and the politics of time. He has been published in Paris-based Her Royal Majesty, Dublin-based Bare Hands Journal, and The Puritan. He won the 2012 Echolocation Poetry Contest and lost numerous others.