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Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland is the winner of the Jackson Poetry Prize, as well as the James Laughlin Prize and the Mark Twain Award, given by the Poetry Foundation in recognition of a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry. His most recent collection of poems is Recent Changes in the Vernacular, coming any day from Tres Chicas Books in 2017. Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, a new collection, will be out from Graywolf Press in 2018. He teaches at the University of Houston.

Our Sunny Psycho: The Complex Cheerfulness of Billy Collins

                                  It is only shallow people who do not judge
                                  by appearances. The true mystery of the world
                                  is the visible, not the invisible....

                                                                              —Oscar Wilde


In terms of psychological interiority, Billy Collins is not the American poet whose work first springs to mind. "There's John Berryman," you think, and "there's Sylvia Plath, and then....well, there's Billy Collins." Collins' poems often seem like a prolonged refutation of the value of introspection. They ride along on an air cushion of bemusement, as if the day-dreamy poet had just stumbled across this latest poem while standing in line for coffee, written it down on a napkin, and accidentally published it. Collins' genius is the appearance of relaxation. In fact, one of Collins' fundamental credos is that effort is over-rated; he advances the heresy that the unexamined life. the life without striving, IS very much worth living. He has made a genre of such unagonized poems, and in many ways it is a valuable one—in part as a rebuttal to the mournful self-seriousness of much American poetry. To choose one from many examples, consider his poem "Despair," which baldly asserts his position on navel-gazing.

     So much gloom and doubt in our poetry—
     flowers wilting on the table,
     the self regarding itself in a watery mirror.

     Dead leaves cover the ground,
     the wind moans in the chimney,
     and the tendrils of the yew tree inch towards the coffin.

     I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
     would make of all this,
     these shadows and empty cupboards?

     Today with the sun blazing in the trees
     my thoughts turn towards the great
     tenth century celebrator of experience

     Wa-hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
     could hardly be restrained
     and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces

     Ye-Hah.

As gleefully juvenile as the closure of this poem is, its aesthetic platform is perfectly sincere. Those who dismiss Collins as a charming lightweight often don't seem to recognize his aesthetic provenance. He belongs to the lineage of skeptic playfulness and Eros. His clean, plain-style narratives and meditations theatrically enact the opposite of heaviness. He's a celebrant of what is above, not under, the ground. It is unhealthy, he suggests,—and in "Despair," he says it outright— this poetic moping around museums and funeral parlors, the insistence on the superiority of gravitas to joy. One can imagine that Collins privately believes that therapy has done a lot of damage to American poetry. Feeling depressed? —Better to go to the beach than the therapist. Collins is not a child of Ecclesiastes but of the American evangelists e.e. cummings, Dorothy Parker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Collins' resilient cheer may explain some of his popularity, but that cheer is built upon some serious beliefs about what poetry is for.

Collins is also a poet of classical influences—the ancient Asian, Latin and Greek poets are among his models, with their measured, contemplative distance from the more tumultuous passions. In Collins' ethos, to observe the external world is almost always a more rewarding enterprise than inward brooding. Like the Chinese poets praised in "Despair," Collins is a poet of the present moment, the transitory sublime, the shining spume at the crest of the fountain.

And, with his sly humor, Collins is also very much a cousin to Oscar Wilde, who made it a gleeful project of celebrating artistic "superficiality:"

     Thinking is the unhealthiest thing in the world, and people die of it
     just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at
     any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a
     people is entirely due to our national stupidity.

Whether one is temperamentally inclined to like or dislike Collins' work, his poems showcase the dynamics of psyche as intriguingly as anyone's. The fact that they seem so affable and guileless makes their subtexts of humor and repression, openness and censorship even more fascinating.

Collins is especially interesting because the border between light and dark, conscious and unconscious in his aesthetics is so adamantly drawn, and so often re-asserted. Collins' career-long feud with poetic morbidity isn't just a debate between the values of heavy and light, between being an optimist or a pessimist. As with most of our deep quarrels with the world, this one turns out to be a reflection of a personal quarrel between two parts of the speaker's self. In a broader way, it is also a debate about the relative role of the unconscious in life and art, about whether the unconscious is really "worth it," with its bothersome infusions of confusion into the self.

Such guardedness need not be construed as neurotic nor psychologically pathological. One vitally important function of the ego is to be the gatekeeper of the psyche, to decide what is allowed to enter and what is best excluded. A healthy ego is a kind of immune system, designed to prevent the self from being overwhelmed. In our daily lives we make such decisions constantly; what to look at and what to turn away from. Repression has an undeservedly bad reputation; in fact, it constantly saves us, and preserves our energies for what is more worthwhile.

Nonetheless, the tug of war between seriousness and light-heartedness recurs with great regularity in Collins' work; it is a running argument. And, if there is some truth to saying that Collins is a sunshine poet, this dialectic between surfaces and depths, shadow and light, is a defining and substantial tension in the poems.

In another poem, "No Things," Collins' speaker seems to interrogate his own aesthetics, counterposing his affection for the "superficial," "minor" stuff of life to the heavy, meaning-freighted contemplation of existence:

     This love for the petty things,
     part natural from the slow eye of childhood,
     part a literary affectation,

     this attention to the morning flower
     and later in the day to a fly
     strolling along the rim of a wineglass—

     are we just avoiding the one true destiny
     when we do that?
     ...why waste time on the sparrow
     or the wildflowers along the roadside

     when we should all be alone in our rooms
     throwing ourselves against the wall of life
     and the opposite wall of death

     the door locked behind us
     as we hurl ourselves at the questions of meaning...

The speaker's question is rhetorical, of course—but then again, is it really? "We should be alone in our rooms," he says, "throwing ourselves at the wall of life." Such theatricality is depicted as ridiculous, yet the very topic suggests the speaker's nagging self-doubt about being constitutionally blithe. The poem manifests Collins' bona fide ambivalence about the duty of art.

Collins is hardly a state-appointed cheerfulness czar, who frowns upon the rollicking energies of the imagination. On the contrary, his poems celebrate irreverence, brush regularly against the profane, address many aspects of sex and romantic love, and other forms of human craziness scripted into human nature. (One of his literary forebears is Catullus, after all.) He is a true believer in the poetic exercise of—the value of—poetic delirium.

On the other hand, it tends to be the top layer of dreaming where Collins spends most of his airtime. His poems don't traffic in nightmare, or violence, or the incomprehensible. He doesn't visit the country of rotting bodies, or the spectacle of burning foreign embassies. He mostly declines to recall the troubled psychology of childhood, that staple of poetry, unless it can be done in an entertaining way. We could say that Collins largely navigates in the precincts of the civic, rational-humanist mind, whose traditional philosophical project is how to sustain a "well-adjusted" life.

And who could blame Collins for sticking to his temperamentally-given realm, when he is in possession of a such supremely suitable poetic instrument—his remarkable poetic Voice? With its warm sociability, its casual intelligence, its syntactic smoothness, and its idiomatic dexterity, it exerts a seamless persuasive power on the average reader; lubricating its winding sure-footed passage through his discursive poems. That Voice is a major dimension of Collins' charm and talent. It seduces, cajoles, complains, jokes, surprises and resolves without ever, it seems, breaking a sweat.

Here's an example of the poet working in his fluent social mode: "Lines Composed Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey." As the title suggests, "Lines" is another poem engaged with and lightly mocking of the traditional scope of poetry:

     I was here before, a long time ago,
     and now I am here again
     is an observation that occurs in poetry
     as frequently as rain occurs in life.

     The fellow may be gazing
     over an English landscape
     hillsides dotted with sheep
     a row of tall trees topping the downs,

     or he could be moping through the shadows
     of a dark Bavarian forest...

     but the feeling is always the same.
     It was better the first time.
     This time not nearly as good.
     I'm not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

     ....And when we put down the book at last
     lean back, close our eyes,
     ...
     we will be schooled enough to know
     that when we wake up
     a little before dinner
     things will not be nearly as good as they once were.

     ****
     Nothing will be as it was
     a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
     before our naps, back in that Golden Age
     that drew to a close sometime before lunch.

"Three Thousand Miles" is an economical, droll piece of literary criticism that summarizes, and then amiably deflates, the habitual melancholy of the Romantic poets. The rhetorical tactic of its smooth-talking monologue is to construct a bemused, head-shaking bond between reader and speaker. By the end of the poem we are in a state of mutual agreement with the speaker about the general childishness of poets, with their rue and nostalgia, their longing and dissatisfaction. Us human beings are so silly, we agree.

But we've also, unexpectedly and perhaps unwittingly, had a genuine encounter with a serious philosophical question about our relationship to time. Does it diminish us? And how shall we handle those diminishments?

By the poem's close, when the ruefully-recalled "Golden Age" is satirically equated with yesterday's lunch, and the "glorious past" with naptime, we know that the forces of comedic irony have conquered melancholy, and that our feet are planted firmly in the realm of pragmatic common sense. Let's go onward, infers the poem; the chances are good that another lunch will appear tomorrow.

"Three Thousand Miles" is a fine poem, and to observe that it is rhetorically under perfect control from start to finish is not to fault it. At the same time, it is hard to find a moment when the poem seems to escape from its maker's sure hand, with his pitch-perfect companionable management of tone. It is a fine poem produced from the conscious mind for the conscious mind; not visibly born, or torn, from the deep itch of an inner necessity.

****

In other Collins poems though, slightly more trouble is visible. The subliminal energies of a less well-mannered self-hood "act out" in randy and insubordinate ways. Even a minor premise can manifest the anarchic energy of the unconscious. Take, for instance, Collins' quasi-pastoral poem "Today," in which the poet exercises one of the best strategies in his repertoire: to seize an everyday phrase and systematically re-amplify it to the point of absurdity. In "Today," the idiomatic domestic phrase is "throw the windows open":

     If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
     so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

     that it made you want to throw
     open all the windows in the house

     and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
     indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

     a day when the cool brick paths
     and the garden sprouting tulips

     seemed to be so etched in sunlight
     that you feel like taking

     a hammer to the glass paperweight
     on the living room end table,

     releasing the inhabitants
     from their snow covered cottage

     so they could walk out
     holding hands and squinting

     into the larger dome of blue and white
     well, today is just that kind of day.

"Today" is, in its way, a trifle, but the pleasure of reading it is the surprise of watching its modest domestic premise unfurl into wild excess. The poem also offers a textbook representation of the psychology of daydream a la Freud, in which fantasy cathartically overthrows the well-ordered surface of civility and the social code. Joy, the poem discovers, is a hair's breadth away from ecstasy, and ecstasy is never far from anarchy. Reading "Today," we recognize the utter aptness of Freud's famous metaphor for the psyche: the ego may believe itself to be the rider of the horse, in control of the dark, powerful id—but the horse is liable to run away at any time, carrying the helpless rider where it will.

****

Collins' excellent narrative poem "Creatures" offers an even more fully developed and personal representation of his signature themes of dark and light, self and other, unconscious and conscious. "Creatures" steers almost free of irony, and as a result, achieves something not overly common in Collins work—an atmosphere of vulnerability. "Creatures" begins by acknowledging, quite soberly, the ways in which the self is genuinely embattled. Here is the opening of the poem:

     Hamlet noticed them in the shapes of clouds,
     but I saw them in the furniture of childhood,
     creatures trapped under surfaces of wood,

     one submerged in a polished sideboard,
     one frowning from a chair-back,
     another howling from my mother's silent bureau,
     locked in the grain of maple, frozen in oak.

"A poem is spoken by a person with a problem," says poet Allen Grossman, and in "Creatures" we sense that the problem is real for the speaker, who is not free of the memories and darkness of childhood fear, when the unknown was powerful and vast. "Creatures" is, you could say, more disturbed, and consequently more dramatically gripping than a poem like "Today." The poem continues,

     Many times I would be daydreaming
     on the carpet and one would appear next to me,
     the oversize nose, the hollow look....

     each looking so melancholy, so damned,
     some peering out at me as if they knew
     all the secrets of a secretive boy.

Although the trademark Collins voice is at work here, "Creatures" constructs a larger, more encompassing and populated world than "Today," a world in which the facts are not so subject to the dexterous transformations of the poet's speech. Other players in the poem include not just the whispering entities of remembered wallpaper and wood-grain but the speaker's human companion, the ocean itself, and even a particular malevolent rock in hand. Our usually confident moderator acknowledges that he too is susceptible to the intrusions of the unconscious—a recurring, pursuing darkness which possesses its own agency, and a motive outside the ken of the protagonist.

     So you will understand my reaction
     this morning at the beach
     when you opened your hand to show me
     a stone you had picked up from the shoreline.

     "Do you see the face?" you asked
     as the cold surf circled our bare ankles.
     "There's the eye and the line of the mouth,
     like it's grimacing, like it's in pain."

One result of the enlarged, more variously-populated narrative featured in "Creatures" is that the poem contains more mythological resonance than exists in a charming but light-headed poem like "Lines Composed Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey." "Creatures" has something of a heroic atmosphere about it, one which enables the reader to identify with and admire the speaker's lifelong struggle against the encroachment of the uncontrollable world. The very tone of the poem—tough and challenged—is distinctly different from a poem like "Today." When the speaker finally throws the ugly, demonic rock into the waves, his aggressive anxiety is convincingly passionate, "flinging it out so it could live out its freakish existence on the dark bottom of the sea."

     "Well, maybe that's because it has a fissure
     running down the length of its forehead
     not to mention a kind of twisted beak," I said,

     taking the thing from you and flinging it out
     over the sparkle of blue waves
     so it could live out its freakish existence

     on the dark bottom of the sea
     and stop bothering innocent beachgoers like us,
     stop ruining everyone's summer.

Perhaps it is not so absurd, even, to call the speaker's behavior here mythic: to be reminded of Beowulf, for example, driving Grendel back to his infernal lair. Thus the hero expels the devil from the world of paradise, protecting not just himself, but the civilized, hygienic world of his "innocent" fellow citizens from the supernatural creatures of the deep. Let things remain, he says, in their segregated, compartmentalized realms. Let us be undisturbed.

Consider how, in "Creatures," the element of water itself embodies its old mythological identity—it is the source of dark and willful things, located right next to the "conscious" land, but very different from it. The sea in this poem—and what emerges from it—seems to represent the reality of connectedness itself, and its inevitable accompanying pain. In stanza eight, the surf touches the speaker and his friend even as he willfully tries to distance it. "Do you see the face?" asks the speaker's companion, "as the cold surf circled our bare ankles." This is a world containing more than just human beings, The voices of reality are legion, suggests the poem, and their diversity of truths cannot be entirely vanquished.

"Creatures" offers a full picture of the human predicament, including the heroic effort of the ego to keep itself safe, and the recurrent counter-effort of the unknown to make itself known. The battle—for that is what it is—is exciting, and we intuit that even in the poem's conclusion, the struggle is unfinished; we sense that the strange entities hiding in stones and clouds will be encountered again. The speaker is penetrated by life's weird, alien forces, and we are moved by his harassed vulnerability.

****

Collins' latest collection, The Rain in Portugal, plies the manners and subject matter that he has made his specialty. The poems speak of cats, and eating cantaloupe, the word "bachelorette," the weather in Ireland. And there is also the usual smattering of digs and jibes at the pretensions of poetry. That is Collins' aesthetic battlefield: to deflate the conventions of poetry with his left hand, and with his right, to represent the modest graces of ordinary experience, making them shapely and luminous. In "Note to J. Alfred Prufrock" he characteristically throws down a mock-macho challenge to T.S. Eliot's famously neurotic protagonist:

     I just dared to eat
     a really big peach
     as ripe as it could be

     and I have on
     a pair of plaid shorts
     and a blue tee shirt with a hole in it

     and little rivers of juice
     are now running down my chin and wrist
     and dripping onto my pool deck.

     What is your problem, man?

I myself am a happy consumer of Collins' art. What is additionally interesting to me is to observe the compulsions and shadows that lurk underneath the svelte presentation of the poems, like strange lumps under the blankets on the bed. It reassures me to be reminded that poetry is never entirely a daylight activity, and that the human unconscious is alive and active even under the sunniest surfaces, for reasons of its own. The forces of culture, and Puritanism, and who knows what else scratch at the floorboards of the populist as much as the aesthete. In his address to T.S. Eliot, the speaker may be eating his big juicy peach, but there is a pit in that peach, rock-hard and wrinkled as a brain—the sound of teeth discovering that pit is part of poetry too.

Billy Collins is nobody's fool. He is also, unmistakably, a very good poet—an uneven one, perhaps, but the producer of so many funny, insightful and graceful poems that his excellence should be undeniable. A hundred critics and fellow poets, envious and condescending, have been driven mad by his popularity and success, his calm and bemused grace before his large audiences. ("Nothing,'" said the poet Kenneth Koch, "is more inconvenient for a poet than the existence of other poets.")

But American poets and readers should be grateful that a few poets like Collins are keeping the half-drowned body of American poetry afloat in popular consciousness, giving it, in the era of Twitter, Facebook and Buzzfeed, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Collins consistently, resourcefully finds an abundance of value and poetic opportunity hidden in plain sight. In these times, we have darker and more malevolent forces than Collins' popularity to deal with. And in fact, so does he.

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