Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review: "The Billy Collins Experience" by A. M. Juster (Kelsay Books, 2016)

The Billy Collins ExperienceThe Billy Collins Experience by A.M. Juster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant send-up of a beloved figure in contemporary American poetry. Every poet, even the titans of English literature in the 16th, 17th, and early 19th Centuries, has a sort of literary underbelly where parody can and perhaps should attach. A.M. Juster's satire of Billy Collins is spot-on, unsettling, and hilarious. That might look easy, but it requires special equipment, and this guy has it. It's as if the underlying message of The Billy Collins Experience was something like:

{{Look, I'm not BC, and yet my own array of poetic powers happens to include the same ones he's been using to write these rather precious books of endearing, harmless, graceful yet somehow complacent little poems. Whereas I (a parodist here, legit poet elsewhere) have both a broader range and a more profound sense of mission which transcends Collins' tremendous success, I have not succeeded as he has. Well, maybe his abundance of fans, money, access, and opportunity is linked to the worldly nature of his goals, which I consider thus compromised, and either cynical or naively shallow. This takes the sting out of being both an even better poet than the formidable Billy Collins (a nontrivial, but not necessarily hubristic level of self-confidence) and a far more obscure one. So screw him.}} ...Did I get that right?

Perhaps the most popular American poet since Robert Frost, Billy Collins is also held in one or another degree of contempt by several very different classes of people/poets/critics. Hipsters (postmodern flarfulent bougie whiteprivilegical) tend to disdain his Frostian, popular, coherent, often deeply moving poems, because their own poems make no sense and they like it that way. Next, those whose consciousness is fully and primarily oriented toward social justice can often be found rejecting Billy Collins because there's almost nothing directly political in his large body of work. Poets whose literary identities include deep suffering may turn away from Collins because the tragic strain in his poetry is not as broad as that in, say, Larkin or Jeffers or Plath. I get as much out of Collins at his best as I do out of Frost, and I love them both. I'm also very fortunate to have a blurb from Billy Collins on the back of my first book of poems, Limousine, Midnight Blue : Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film (Red Hen Press, 2009):

"Ovid himself might have taken notice of this volume. It’s one thing
to turn a woman into a tree, another more advanced thing to transform
fifty frames of the Zapruder film into as many sonnets. Limousine,
Midnight Blue is a radical display of poetry’s ability to freeze time, to
catch fugitive—and here, disputed—moments in the amber of form."

For your enjoyment, and to add a cornflake of context to this review... My new book of poems, Dodo Feathers: Poems 1989-2019, includes an "Homage to Billy Collins," a tiny poem whose mix of tribute, warmth, and irony is rather different from A.M. Juster's.


Billy Collins could not be here this morning,
so I am writing his poem for him.
In it, a dog sleeps beside a tree,
while that little girl from the painting
by de Chirico chases her almost silent hoop.
And you are there, and from his window
Billy Collins sees you and, too busy writing
a much better poem than this one,
wonders for a moment: how you got here,
and why you are wearing his bathrobe.

  Dodo Feathers Poems 1989-2019 by Jamey Hecht

View all my reviews