Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Good, The Bad and the Indifferent

Billy Collins
    In "Music to a Poet's Ear" Billy Collins ("BC") is quoted as saying:  "Lyrics just don't hold up without the music."


    And poems do? 

    In truth, almost no contemporary poems, starting with his own, hold up to scrutiny now or over time, with or without music.  In fact, over the last forty years the batting average of lyricists has been better than that of poets by a factor of infinity.  To wit, during that time we've had thousands of hit songs but not a single iconic poem--not even within the community that claims to read it (i.e. poets). 

Jim Morrison, 1943-1971
    With nary a hint of irony, the Laureate goes on to say:  "Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word."

     And Billy Collins is?


     The Great Unwashed for whom Billy Collins expresses such disregard will be indifferent or feel the same way toward him [and, to be fair, most other living poets].  At the far extreme from the unfamiliar masses are the geeks sharing the same opinion.  Without exception, the more we know about the elements of the craft the lower our opinion of BC's "work" sinks.  Between those two poles are the dilettantes, few of whom could recite a single line he's written.  Here is a practical test:  Find those who confess to not knowing the difference between BC's offerings and poetry.  Ask them if "The Red Wheelbarrow" is free verse or metrical.  Not one will get it right.


     The problem is that ConPoets such as Mr. Collins jury rig their definition of poetry to fit what they like to write without regard to technique, prosody, memorability, audience or any other measurable.  This is why we cringe whenever we hear the expression "substance over form."  When pseudointellectuals contend that depth is what distinguishes poetry from prose I wonder what authors they are reading.  Similarly, when they draw false dichotomies between poems and lyrics, I recommend songwriters like Cohen, Dylan, Ferron, Mitchell and others, inviting comparison between their verses and the pallid lines we see in literary 'zines.  This is not just the standard rhetorical ploy of comparing the Best of A to the Worst of B.  As uncommon as great song lyrics are, fine poetry is rarer still.  Always has been.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11

     As for contemporary poetry standing the test of time, almost no one alive in 2015 can recite a single line of text-only poetry (i.e. without music) written during Jim Morrison's glory years between 1967 and 1971.  Thus, "Light my Fire" alone has already eclipsed everything Mr. Collins and his contemporaries will produce.  Don't expect that to change in the next 44 years.  Or the next 440.  Does this make Jim Morrison a good poet?

     Hardly, but it does make him a bad one--in every sense of the word--and that is a start.  Poetry is one of only two modes of communication.  Does anyone wish to argue that Doors lyrics are prose?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #148
     To see Jim Morrison's efforts in perspective we all have to stipulate that "bad verse" is not an oxymoron.  In fact, it is almost as common as oxygen.  What is more, 99% of it is every bit as godawful as Jim Morrison's and BC's.

     To avoid this assessment, we could apply the original, objective, demand side (tinds) definition of poetry but with that comes the sobering realization that nothing written in the last half century qualifies. 

     As Leonard Cohen says, "poetry is a judgement, not a claim."  No audience?  No judgement.  No poetry. 

     Tree.  Falling.  Forest.     


  1. "You know that it would be untrue, / you know that I would be a liar / if I were to say to you / that our love it couldn't get much higher / come on baby light my fire (etc.) Yes, I remember it, but I think that's more because of the melody and drums, the great organ riff, and Morrison's voice than because of the words themselves.
    As far as remembering lines goes, rhyme and rhythm make lines more memorable, but is that the best criterion for success? I love Merwin's "For the Anniversary of My Death" and have probably read it 100 times, but can't remember the exact words--it's free verse. "Every year I pass the day / where the last fires will set out / ... / like the beam of a lightless star / then I will no longer be in / . . . the love of one woman / and the faithlessness of men / ...when the rain ceases . . . / bowing not knowing to what." That's the best I can do, but I don't think that means it's a bad poem; I remember all of "Light My Fire" but I don't think that means it's a good poem.
    As for Billy Collins, I don't think he's the best current poet, not even close, but he has a charm that appeals to many readers: he does have an audience. Isn't he the commercial poet you're longing for, the poet who tries to please an audience? If not, I don't know what a contemporary commercial poet would look like. I enjoy reading your blog and am waiting for further enlightenment.

  2. Kyle:

    You asked: "As far as remembering lines goes, rhyme and rhythm make lines more memorable, but is that the best criterion for success?"

    No, it is not "the best criterion for success". It is the only criterion for success. It is what distinguishes poetry (with its subset, lyrics) from prose. Prosody is mnemonics. Wouldn't you love Merwin's "For the Anniversary of My Death" even more if you COULD remember it?


    Billy Collins as a commercial poet? Far from it. With all of BC's honors and accolades almost no one, including poets (from what I've seen, including Billy himself!), can recite a single piece he's written. He has been an abject failure, as we all have been. Yes, even Margaret A. Griffiths, who was an infinitely superior poet.

    We need to speak of poems, not poets. "Commercial" means marketable. Such verses can be niche/eclectic, serving some demographics (beyond poets themselves, of course), or iconic, serving virtually all demographics. If referring to the subset that is lyric poetry, think "High Flight" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee". Think songs. Hell, think jingles, if you must. Basically, anything that you and those [literate] nonpoets you know can quote at length. For more on this, read the first few articles on this blog.


    Please let me know if you have any questions. Your interest is appreciated.


    Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Your comments and questions are welcome.