“The Trouble with Poetry” Billy Collins

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Poets: Damn Quirky Readers


When it comes to reading poetry, I admit to a few quirky habits. Let’s start with reading a collection. I’ll use as an example Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a book I picked up because it had won some awards (the Gratitude Awards or something).

First, the ritual I go through before I read a book of poetry. I count the number of poems in the table of contents. Here it is a nimble 24. Doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a full book of poetry (this is not a chapbook), but once you enter, the mystery is solved. Gay mostly writes long, strung-out single-stanza poems, often with lines that consist of 2-6 words. Note to self: Want to stretch a chapbook into a full collection, Gumby-style? Gay shows the way!

But back to the rituals. Acknowledgments. My second stop. The poet in me wants to know where these poems have seen the light of published day. Often, it’s a depressing exercise as I see a litany of top-drawer publications–the stuff of most poets’ rejections files. But in Gay’s case, it’s a motley– and to my mind, somewhat inspiring– set of obscure and maybe doable journals: Solstice, Gabby, Exit 7, Nashville Review, Bombay Gin, Oversound, etc. Hard as I listen (ear to the ground), however, I’ve never heard of them. Any of them, which makes me wonder how many are still in business? Poetry journals, like fruit flies, are fleeting things. Cover your glasses of grape juice, people.

Third ritual, I start reading the poems with a small notebook nearby.  I write down cool phrases from the poems as I read. I know from teaching that you never stop getting better and–news flash–there is no such thing as a “master teacher,” no matter how many years you teach.

Ditto with poetry writing. and “master poets.” You are an apprentice forever. The Sisyphus of Stanzas. Always pushing the rock. Always learning. If you want to be funny about it, you can recall T.S. Eliot’s line: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” as you read. Or how about the more contemporary Billy Collins lines from “The Trouble with Poetry”:


And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters…


By way of example of lines you might find in my notebook, here are a few I jotted down from Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude:


“pulling me down into the oldest countries of my body”

“mostly he disappeared into the minor yawns of the earth”

“purple skin like cathedrals of glass”

“filling the sky in my chest”

“cat’s shimmy through the grin of the fence”

“his tongue drowsed slack as a creek”

“In that gaudy, cement-mixer Leavettown accent that sends lemurs scaling my rib cage to see”


Eliot and Collins aside, the idea is to collect examples of how poets create new ways of saying old truths, to catch the unexpected word pairings that glow like newly-captured fireflies in a jar (I recommend catch-and-release).

Back to rituals. If we can shift gears, I also have habits when reading poetry journals. Specifically the senior among poetry journals called (of all things) Poetry. They have a wonderful habit of printing brief bios of contributing poets in the back. If it’s a first-time appearance in their august journal (even if it’s July), they place an asterisk near the poet’s name.

My quirky habit? I’m a bad boy. If I read a poem and think to myself, “This? THIS was accepted by the most august (even if it’s July) poetry journal in the land? It MUST be a much-published and well-known poet cruising on his or her laurels (outfitted with wheels)!”

Sure enough, I am 90% accurate when I go back and find no asterisk but plenty of previously-published works near the poet’s name. The poems I often like best? Often they are starred. Asterisked as new blood. Earning their way into the august heat via hard work and ingenuity with the pen (or keyboard, Brave New World-style).

It gives one hope, something every poet, new and old, carries in his satchel like Perseus’s mirror. The Medusas of Rejection are many, after all.