So vast was my fanboy admiration of Billy Collins when I was in college, so unencumbered by facts my ambition, and so shameless my neophytic insolence, that I wrote the Poet Laureate of United States a poem. An overconfident challenge ineptly disguised as a fan letter. It said, I am ashamed now to paraphrase:
Dear Mr. Collins, Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, respected peer of The New Yorker, deserving recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, and all-around literary badass – you may in fact hold the highest appointed position of any American poet, but I’m a really really good English major, so, you know, make room.
And to make the audacity truly laughable, I wrote all this in the form of a poem. I will not here share that poem. Suffice to say that contrary to my undergraduate assertion, I was not really really good.
The poem, titled “Upon Reading Canada,” was an epistolary one-pager. No rhyme, meter, rhythm, or purposeful cadence worth mentioning – “free verse” would be what they aptly call it. It shared with Mr. Collins’s poetry only its general typographic shape. The rest was a haphazard cocksure motif of Billy Collins himself, cast as the heavy weight champion of the world. You see, boxing rings have lines in the form of boundary ropes, which you must grapple within. This is metaphorically similar to writing, which also incorporates lines-this time, of words.
You can see that the Muses had clearly favored me with a friend request.
As the poem swaggered on, I may have made unsubtle claims that a young challenger was on the way to the ring (this challenger was not, say, the talented Emanuel Xavier, but rather myself). You may have guessed that I wrote, printed, and mailed this poem in the span of thirty minutes, and you would be right.
Nonetheless, there is a shred of dignity I glom onto when remembering how poorly I presented myself to Mr. Collins. I was, after all, an infatuated 19-year-old. Armed suddenly with the tool of close reading, I had discovered my first Olympian. Rarely do you laugh out loud reading poetry. This is a disappointment I did not endure while devouring his books in my dorm hall. I was shushed by many a sleepy neighbor, but I would never let them mute the blaring advertisements that I was, right then, getting something terribly witty.
The truth is Mr. Collins is achingly clever. It is the first temptation in reading his poetry to assume you will only be entertained. His work is described as “gently and consistently startling,” (John Updike), “sometimes tender, often profound,” (NY Times), and “refreshingly devoid of tweed and pomp,” (some dude on Amazon).
I will not go into a close reading of Collins’s poetry. I can’t. I tried. A few hours ago I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room to find a single poem I could dissect for you. After finishing it, I then picked up Picnic, Lightning. Then The Art of Drowning, my personal favorite. They were all delicious.
I will say his poems dazzled and sucker punched me that first time. Like all writers, my highest compliment could only be that I wished I had written each one. To credit my college self a tiny bit, this was the ending of the poem I sent him. It was upon reading his poem, “Canada,” that I thought I had discovered his first mistake. As I put it then, I felt almost relieved to see one poem, at least, that wasn’t perfect in my besotted gaze.
My reasoning for thinking ill of the poem is unclear. I think I pounced on a certain repetition of a phrase within as an error of redundancy. I’m not sure. Of course, by the time I had finished the poem, the purposefulness of each line had been made clear.
In the metaphor of the boxers, this is the unseen knockout blow. A wink from the champ preceded it, I was sure.
In a lot of ways, I suppose the redundancy is mine. This piece, too, seems like nothing but a fan letter. As for self-effacing, self-aggrandizing claptrap, well, there are more uses of the first person than the name Billy Collins. In terms of literary contests, I suppose I could lift more of his hardback editions than he could. Of mine, we could lift an equal weight, zero. Supposing we were both mysteriously turned into dancing bears, I think I’d have an easier go of it. Boxing kangaroos would be his, but never the dancing bears.
At the risk of an all-out flame war, comparable to the east coast/west coast rappers of the 90s, I will say that Mr. Collins is a fine poet, but possibly a pitiful air traffic controller. This in addition to his underwhelming performance as a dancing bear.
And lest anyone think I am overstepping with the Guggenheim Fellow, please know the kindly gentlemen has tooth enough to defend himself. Six weeks after I sent off my poem, I was standing in my dorm lobby, buttoning my coat before rushing into the autumn gale. The lady at the front desk said, “here,” to save herself the effort of sorting my mail. A letter addressed from the office of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, in the Poetry and Literature Center, The Library of Congress, United States of America. The watermark was a bald eagle. There was only the following in verbatim, in toto:
Ready to put the gloves on with you anytime, punk. See you at the weigh-in.
Bring your friends,