Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kirsch v Collins

Adam Kirsch, in his book The Modern Element, takes the reasonable line that Billy Collins is a poet of wit, and proceeds to take issue with the dismissive way in which Collins employs his wit, whether for example in pointing out the silliness of the language in a lingerie catalogue, or - and this is where he seems rub Kirsch the wrong way - giving a superficial synopsis of 'Tintern Abbey'. The Alps stand no matter what remarks tourists may make, and we can enjoy a clever put-down, even while admitting that so doing doesn't display the noblest side of our nature. Kirsch comments: "Relentless joking can be a way of discouraging curiosity, ambition, and endeavour, without which there is no greatness in art" before - like a skillful prosecutor before a jury - backing away somewhat ... "This may be too grave a charge". Yet is there not room enough in poetry's wide terrain for entertaining pieces, short enough to be read in a minute or two, which offer up some bite-sized and easily digested 'take' on everyday experience or topics most likely to be discussed in the common rooms of English Faculties, not particularly exercising our intellects, or doing all the things great poetry can do, but diverting us nevertheless? Reading Billy Collins (admittedly in short bursts, more than ten pages at a sitting seems to cloy my mind somewhat) I smile more than frown.

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