Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bagatelle? or Billy Collins?

The other day, I finished reading The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins.

At his best, Mr. Collins uses specific details to place the reader, draw the reader in, and then take the reader someplace else. My all-time Billy Collins favorite example of this is in "Osso Buco."

At other times, Billy Collins sounds like Billy Collins—as though he has made a cottage industry from chronicling the minutia of the mundane.

And he can tell you this is not necessarily a bad thing.

While driving home from a local nursery one recent Sunday morning, I happened to catch him on "A Prairie Home Companion" on NPR. During the show, he read "You, Reader," and the audience laughed and laughed.

Laughter is good.

Meanwhile I was grumping that I wasn't writing the poem right then because I had several basil plants and 12 bags of compost in the car and I would write a different poem later.

When I had a chance to read the poem on the page, it struck me differently, especially the ending near those hydrangeas.

I noticed that many of Mr. Collins's poems seem to end in mid-air, or mid-thought. And I know that I like to try to close things up (end with a clap of thunder or the bang of a drum). Is it better to leave the reader hanging? Instead of lopping off the last stanza that I write, should I lop off two or three or four?

Mr. Collins's emphasis on observation of the every day reminds me of questions I've asked about some of my own poems—those that seem so plain, so descriptive, that they lack depth. I call them bagatelles, or little nothings.

(Back in the '70s, my piano teacher said that's what bagatelle means. Beethoven wrote little pieces that he called "bagatelles." They may have been little, but they were lovely. They didn't need a tympani.)

I'm not implying that Mr. Collins's poems lack depth—but they make me wonder where the difference lies between a poem that illuminates what's going on, revealing itself in layers, and a poem that simply states what's going on.

What's the difference between a work of narrative power and a bagatelle? How do you avoid writing a little nothing?

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