Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ballistics Misfiring: A Review

Billy Collins was the first contemporary poet I became familiar with when I began to take English studies seriously. His collection Picnic, Lightning was all the rage at BYU-Idaho in the Fall of 2001, and I still have a great deal of nostalgia for that volume of poetry.

At that time, 2001, Collins was the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was also undergoing a change of publishers—from the smaller University of Pittsburg Press to the much (much) larger Random House. His first book under the new publisher was Sailing Around the Room, which was something of a greatest hits collection and showcased very little of anything new. His next two books, however, were all original poems—yet for me to use the word “original” would be a kindly gesture. Neither Nine Horses nor The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems showcased half the originality of Picnic, Lightning or The Apple that Astonished Paris, another of Collins’ earlier books. I found the poems in these newer collections to be annoyingly self-conscious and dull. Collins, it seemed, had lost his clever muse during his move to Random House.

Recently, I finished reading his newest collection of poems, Ballistics. Admittedly, I began reading this book fully expecting it to be a complete waste of time. Fortunately, Ballistics lived up to my expectations. Collins’ most recent poems are a mess of self-absorbed musings, unoriginal observations, pointless allusions to Chinese poets (real and imaginary), and—of course—the same bland Collins imagery. In short, it sucked. Ballistics brings absolutely nothing new to the table to poetry. The title poem, in fact, like the title poem in The Trouble with Poetry, is nothing more than yet another Collins poem about how much he hates contemporary poets and poetry. Excuse me while I yawn.

To be fair, Ballistics contains a few good poems. Unfortunately, while these poems are “good,” they are not very memorable. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering—even with the aid of the table of contents—which of them I liked. There is one poem, however, that is so idiotic that it caused me to close the book and smack it against my forehead three or four times. Here is an excerpt from the poem, entitled “Despair”:

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to 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.

See what I mean? Idiotic. I think Billy has finally sold his artistic soul to success.

Well, in honor of the crappiness that is Ballistics, I here reprint Percy Bysshe Shelley's "To Wordsworth"--a poem written to another great poet who sold out to the Man (and his money).


To Wordsworth

Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship, and love's first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel'st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter's midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty.
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.


  1. RE: Blogflop

    Sorry about your luck pal. I guess you are just so intellectually intimidating. Either that or people just say...uhhh...what do you even say to that?

    Just so you know, I love you anyway :)

  2. And I don't even believe in emoticons.