Monday, May 5, 2008

I'll Never Make This Mistake Again

Way back in March, I posted the reading list for my summer class in Contemporary American poetry. Right about now, I'm feeling like Gob Bluth--"I've made a terrible mistake."

I included Billy Collins's Nine Horses for a couple of reasons. I'm focusing on the variety of voices in contemporary poetry, and while Collins's voice is bland and generally inoffensive, it is an unfortunately popular voice outside much of the traditional poetic community. It was a chance, I thought, to give my students an accessible book, which could act as a breather in an intense, six week course. I should have read the book more closely before I did that.

No, I should have read the book before doing that.

I've found my angle of attack into this book, though. It's a book that presents a world of out-of-touch privilege, and is sublimely unaware of just how privileged it is. It's going to make a nice contrast to the in-your-face politics of Marge Piercy and the outsider-looking-in voice of Mohja Kahf.

There's a series that begins with the poem "Paris" that's really indicative of this voice. The speaker in "Paris" spends three pages musing on what he's going to do after he finishes his bath in an apartment someone gave him. What paintings, what street signs will he see? What bridges will he lean against while he muses on the day? In "Istanbul," the speaker glories in a Turkish bath, the servants pouring tub after tub of water on him, servants he thanks silently. In the next poem, "Love," his speaker sits on a train watching a woman struggle with her cello case; in "Languor," he speaks of redesigning his family coat of arms, et cetera, et cetera.

I could deal with the privilege better if there were any indication that Collins is aware of it, but there's no ironic turn in it, no twist, no moment where his speaker is even conscious of the benefits he enjoys. It's poetry for the oblivious upper-middle class white person, which may be its greatest sin of all.

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