Friday, June 5, 2009

On Billy Collins, Politics, and Queer Poet-Activist Edward Field

In a way, it’s no surprise that Billy Collins offered a blurb to Edward Field for his selected and new volume After the Fall. With even a cursory glance, you see that they’re both invested in the plain-spoken idiom, too often reasonable line break, and the boasting of a mildly amusing conceit, ending with a witticism. Not necessarily a bad thing. Entertaining isn’t a sin. Or at least not as much as gay men wanting to marry, according to Proposition 8.

Billy Collins has gotten a bum rap. In this age of weak criticism, where saying anything questioning yields fear and anger, it’s no surprise that everyone targets their hostility toward the same person. And who better to attack than a white, straight, heterosexual male who likes to crack jokes, and thinks he’s funnier than he actually is? Leave the poor guy alone. He’s done some charity work, editing “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” and such, offering younger poets recognition.

But we like to go after the obvious. Yes, a Billy Collins poem has a sure-fire formula; he’s always sitting at his desk, looking out the window. But if you’ve seen Collins read, he strategically makes his own banality known, reading in an uninflected manner, tossing off his best jokes. He generously hints that he’s not that good.

An Edward Field Poem is a Billy Collins Poem. Sometimes I hear gay poets talk about Fields in a reverential sense, as if he’s done so much for queer poetry. And that’s possible, I suppose. But he hasn’t done anymore than Collin for straights.

I don’t want to sound overly critical of either of them. (At the same time, Collins poems share some disconcerting political views about the role of history in our lives. More on that later...)_

With some disappointment and relief, I think that Field shield himself through his openness of his sexuality, his overtly political rhetoric at times. I prefer the former; his contribution to the intersection of queerness and old age deserves more inspection.


Here I want to briefly talk about the way Field engages hot-button political issues. His method is as repetitive as Collins.

Here’s the first stanza of a recent poem called “Homeland Security”:

My advice to anybody who looks like an Arab these days is,
when you’re in a post office or jogging around the reservoir,
never stop and jot down any notes,
even if it’s a great idea for a poem.
And for God’s sake don’t snap any photos at the airport,
even of your cousins arriving from St. Louis.
God forbid you should draw a map of the subway for them,
showing the route between their hotel and your house!

Collins no doubt was proud of the establishment of that conceit. Mark that off the tidy checklist. One acknowledgment of the poet writing the poem. Check. Self-congratulatory humor. Check.

The second stanza elaborates the thesis:

And if a new “friend”-the guy on the next barstool, say-
starts suggesting pranks
like blowing up the tunnels....
just keep saying what’s fun about that,
even as a reality game, and you’re really only
interested in poetry about nightingales.

The witty closure:

And when they lead you away in handcuffs
don’t bother protesting your innocence and calling for a lawyer.
You can’t have one-and you’re guilty.

An easy “political” poem—what liberal isn’t going to agree with a critique of this prejudice. That’s why the poem fails. Field reveals no intricate ambivalence. This lack is what causes some gay poets to prematurely dismiss the political poem as containing little, if any, artistic value. Who can deny this poem might even have worked better as a column on the editorial page of a newspaper?

I hate saying this. I think too many gay poets have rejected the possibility of an overt politics and a sophisticated aesthetics emerging.

In this poem, Fields does offer one potentially interesting moment. He tellingly skips over the idea that could cause complications:

And if this “friend” brings up the subject of the Palestinians,
for whom you might reasonably have some sympathy...

Unpack that word reasonably, and you could have a firestorm on your hands. Is the reasonably pedantic? Condescending? Genuine? Sarcastic?

Here’s the rub: Nuance can be form. It can emerge through the acceptance that a poem by its very nature can’t express tone. Only possibility.

Field is as slick as Collins; he skips over the nuance. What if your protestor forgets why he’s marching in the first place, or the entertainer comes to believes the heckler might be right. Both fear their potential silence on the stage. They may become lost, and that expectation may be why we’d happily follow them .

1 comment:

  1. hi, Steve, I loved your comments. I do wish it felt more natural to talk about all kinds of things, like politics, in poetry. We're not used to it. But I do it as best I can. At least we got language loosened up. Why do you think subject matter in poetry is so limited? I write about (almost) everything i'm thinking about, and I guess my mind isn't so subtle -- the great modern poets I was weaned on were proud of their obscurity. But back then poetry was more of a cult. And snobbish as hell. And in a way, I write for a listening audience, not a reading audience, and love them to get every word. It's just my nature to do that, in spite of how I learned to write back in the 1940's. But I come from shtetl immigrants and like the sensibility. i'd be embarrassed to put on anything fancier, 'subtler' if you wish. Anyway, I loved getting discussed by a fellow author. Thanks!