The Billy Collins Argument

The Narrative poem starts out in, say, your garden. And your wife is remarking about the willow in blossom. And this reminds you of previous seasons. Other Springs. And this, of the general nature of beauty, when you first acknowledged something stunning, a bird, perhaps. Perhaps the way your mother’s hands folded laundry. Even better, how you barely had an awareness to confront this concept. Your wife then interrupts, but you aren’t quite listening. The day is getting warmer. You’ve taken off your jacket. You only focus on how her lips shape words.

I’m not here to debate the majesty or misery or a narrative poem. It’s actually quite ingenious: its ability to disarm the audience by placing the audience in a neutral setting. Even when Tony Hoagland says something offensive, there is a comedic situation to break the tension. Really, it’s hard to get angry at a narrative poem. Its meandering is quaint. It reminds you how you tend to think. It surprises you how quickly beauty can come of seeming insignificance.

I thought of tracing our current state of narrative poetry in order to find blame. Maybe start with Bob Hicok and work backwards. Steve Orlen is in there. Tony Hoagland, next to Billy Collins, seems to be the largest beneficiary. I’m still not sold on that being a good thing. Perhaps we can trace the meandering narrative back to the 70s and blame Philip Larkin, as he still end-rhymes his lines. Go back even further and we can blame “The Day Lady Died.” A lot of things start and end with O’Hara. I like this.

But, it seems, you should either love narrative poetry or hate it. Current grad school trends suggest the latter. But I’m more wondering if I can do both. If I truly have the capacity to justify writing abstractly, then, months later, go on a simplistic bender. I’ve been told there are poets who blend all forms (lyric, narrative, rhetorical, and meditative). I’ve been told Ashbery’s book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror does this. I’ve been told the title does this. And while I agree that poets can blend forms and create lines that function at such a high level that they encapsulate several styles, I can’t see a poem be both a meandering narrative AND a lyric poem. It just can’t. One form has to be the primary one. And though Ashbery does ground “Self-Portrait…” (the poem) in a narrative place, he still wistfully disengages with it, flourishes in the lyrical, and truncates with rhetoric. For these latter reasons, this is why Ashbery isn’t a narrative poet. No matter where the poem started, he is inclined to move beyond the narrative. I don’t use the term “beyond” to degrade, though. The magic of the meandering narrative is that it stays grounded, and meandering. The surprise comes from trusting it so much. And while Ashbery’s voice is trustworthy, we don’t believe that he isn’t going to do something else. Some trickery. Something different. And so, we are inherently on guard. As intellectuals, we tend to read even more critically than any other audience, reading with a pen, preparing to chop-up or break-down before we’ve even finished the piece.

And that’s where the argument comes in. Narrative, because of its simplicity, seems to take the work out of poetry. And for me, work is something good art asks of its audience. Of course, not too much. I still can’t get my head around the notion that I need to read 300-some-odd books in order to fully understand The Cantos. Perhaps this is why all my students love Bukowski.

But, like the narrative poem, I digress. I meander. It’s natural, I suppose. It’s definitely freeing in comparison to formal writing. But in a contemporary setting, I more care about the life of the meandering narrative. Most intellectuals claim it’s dead, solely because nothing new is being done with it. In fact, Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano is the most recent book I can think of that tried to reinvent the form, and he abandoned it towards the end of the book. But then, I’m reminded of the power of narrative. The prose poem has definitely kept the narrative alive, even sometimes fresh. Sectioning has always been popular to show just how quickly narrative can do work. And that may be why I’m so enamored with the concept of it, its sheer efficiency. I hate when writers aren’t aware that their audience has been following them all along, and insist on giving more detail, more background, more superfluous words.

It’s just that our brains are so used to narrative that you, my audience, have already filled in the blanks of that little paragraph I used to start this post. You’ve already painted the yard. Already named the wife. Already intermingled your memories of your mother with those in the paragraph. Narrative is efficient because you’re not cognizant of how much work your imagination is actually doing. Moreover, you’re not aware you’re doing the work. Perhaps the work is more simplistic, easier. Sure. Maybe that’s my reluctance to fully embrace it as a viable contemporary form of writing. But what do I do with the knowledge that it was actually a Sharon Olds narrative that piqued my interest in contemporary poetry, and that Philip Larkin’s “HighWindows,” not Eliot’s “Waste Land,” actually made me love poetry? More specifically, what do I do with a narrative piece I was compelled to write yesterday? Sure, it’s not completely a 1970s meandering narrative. It’s 2014. We’re highly self-aware. But damn, it’s not very different either. And I have a 70+ page solid manuscript that is trying to do so much more, and I believe, is. I still wake up with lines of it in my head. There is so much work in there. So much work that’s been done. And there’s good work in there for the reader, too. Satisfying work. But that doesn’t make the meandering narrative go away. I still like its simple gestures. I like how easily it disarms me. It reminds me of another one I wrote about a year ago. They still waggle their long, long legs at me. And so, for that reason, I give up. Here they are:

Enormous Language

Really, I want to hold back, think before writing
things like: Why do all the good ones die
and the Kardashians don’t. Philip Seymour Hoffman
found dead
with a needle in his arm,
just so much found death,
and none of us are all that surprised, really, cuz c’mon
it’s Hollywood,
he went to film school,
cuz c’mon have you seen the roles he’s been in,
acting out of experience. Good art
comes out of experience. And
in the wake of this kind of death
we are seldom attached, except:
“masterful work in Synecdoche, New York” or “sublimely beautiful
in Happiness,” ambiguous rhetoric and just this irony knocking
its steely bones against your cheeks
to think: I wonder exactly when he died,
if he felt that smooth blood music;
sudden enormous language,
though, I’m sorry,
I’m already associating this with Paul Walker,
solely because it’s Hollywood tragedy,
moved on to Heath Ledger, over drinks,
theorizing why someone doesn’t just say stop,
it’s easy, see. Stop with all the dropping dead of stars,
the sky’s getting pretty ill lit, Judy Garland and her barbiturates
still popping in after 45 years
for an unknown reason, she was only 47, except to remind:
a monster isn’t made up of just one person.
Anna Nicole, and we’re not surprised.
Amy Winehouse, and we’re not surprised.
The rhetoric holding our hair back just long enough.
And Brittany Murphy’s husband, then her,
“tragic,” “mysterious,” her role in The Dead Girl,
how she eked out tears on screen, so much irony now,
the Hollywood Coroner’s Office filling itself up,
Hollywood Coroner on a business card,
as if, yes, has 3 listings
for Hollywood Coroner—high demand—high stress—
letting stories leak out like tears.
Yes, there are other ways to say this,
your tongue beautiful with diamonds,
but please, we are not seeking the best headline.

Service Industry

My former professor was just named Poet Laureate of Wisconsin.
“Dear Max, congrats. I hope you remember me.
There’s still a lot of sex in my poetry.”

“Dear Max, it’s MLK Day. An inauguration’s been moved.”

The coffee rings on my frenzied schematics for, say, a robot.
The server apologizes
about the under-ripe avocados while backing into the kitchen.
Some things don’t change. My grandma’s
television is still analog, like my infant sister,
it still has tubes. Which is closer to a rap line
than poetic insight. “Max, I’m sorry

about the similes.” But technology
has at least done away with the ear trumpet. “Dear Max,
few have an excuse for ‘what-whating’ anymore.
‘Come again’ is not analogous.”

“Dear Max, see.”

Praise for the days when there’s a pill for that rings true,
but birth control is pretty effective. Equally,
the server forgets the specials, but remembers my name.

“Dear Max, my buddy wants to know why you gave him a C.”
Video game verbage is not the most eloquent,
though studies show an increase in the problem solving of toddlers.
“Dear Max, there is a pill for that.” “Dear Max, okay,
there’ll be no robot; the napkin’s got glass sweats.”

 “Dear Max,
colloquialisms aren’t pretty either.”

And when I write brain plasticity, the white tourists of The Court of Two Sisters
form a conga line, waving napkins as if proceeding a jazz-man’s funeral.

“Max, I should admit I almost slept with the slacker
of the class. Guess she admired my work. Guess
that isn’t very appropriate in a congratulations message, but I’m still wondering
how you didn’t fail her.”

“Max, this is about progress; I think I’ve worked out the redundancies in my language.”

“Max, I said almost.”

Then, Sting’s “Fields of Gold” yawns over the neighboring fence, and the conga dissipates
to a slow dance.
Where there are no lovers,
but a venerable embrace.

“Max, I want to tell you the servers don’t have MLK day off. Most are black. I mean,
Martin Luther King Jr. day.”

“Max, I no longer truly understand what’s appropriate.”

“Does the observer only nod to the wait staff;
save the good language for poetry?”

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