When Famous Poets Get Lost…


It’s a sad feeling, watching a poet you like slowly transform into a poet you like a little less. Or into a poet that’s a bit more mortal than believed. Or maybe into a poet that’s cashing in on his own capital, cannibal-like, over time.

The classic example nowadays is Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate and Everyman, a rare and precious combination in poetry-writing circles. Yes. Billy whose verse could speak not only to academics but to the masses. Billy who was both wise in his ways and homespun in his approach. Billy whose wit was drier than the Gobi on a sandy day (wait… oh, never mind).

These thoughts came home to roost yesterday when I read Billy’s latest (“Safe Travels”) in America’s glossiest (The New Yorker). Shall we voyage together?


Safe Travels
by Billy Collins

Every time Gulliver travels
into another chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels”
I marvel at how well travelled he is
despite his incurable gullibility.

I don’t enjoy travelling anymore
because, for instance,
I still don’t know the difference
between a “bloke” and a “chap.”

And I’m embarrassed
whenever I have to hold out a palm
of loose coins to a cashier
as if I were feeding a pigeon in the park.

Like Proust, I see only trouble
in store if I leave my room,
which is not lined with cork,
only sheets of wallpaper

featuring orange flowers
and little green vines.
Of course, anytime I want
I can travel in my imagination

but only as far as Toronto,
where some graduate students
with goatees and snoods
are translating my poems into Canadian.


It may be a bad habit, but I often wonder if famous writers’ works would see the light of publishing day if they were subject to blind readings. The opening stanza, not exactly intriguing as openers go, offers a poor play on words, first the title of Swift’s book becoming a noun and lower-case verb and second the pun on Gulliver’s name and the word “gullibility.”

Stanza two offers two British terms as reasons for Collins’ self-enforced (and Proust-like) sedentary ways.

The highlight of this poem comes in the third stanza with its alliteration and its simile (loose coins as pigeon feed), but then it’s on to Proust and the assumption that readers know the French writer kept house in a cork-walled bedroom.

What really throws me is the end. Like the opening, a poem’s last play calls for a trump card. Here it comes across as a rather random deuce. Toronto? Graduate students in snoods? And, as in the first stanza, a rather lame joke (translating English into Canadian) coupled with a lamentable tip of the hat to self: “translating my poems.”

That last grates a bit, almost as if Collins is in on the joke: “Ha-ha, look at me, famous poet using his name to take up bandwidth in the rich medium known as The New Yorker, writing poems alluding to my poems!”

Or maybe it’s mini-me, munching sour grapes on Lilliput. Acting like a Yahoo in general. And wishing I had a Houyhnhnm’s chance of horsing around on The New Yorker‘s pages, too.

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