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The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins

December 26, 2011


As Collins says in his title poem, the trouble with poetry is “that it encourages writing more poetry.” This is particularly true of Collins poems, which are accessible collections of observations, wit, and simply painted scenes that may surprise the reader with their effect. His work is so without artifice that a cynical reader might read a poem and, like the jaded observer dragged to an abstract art exhibit, say, “My seven-year-old could do that.”

There is maybe some truth in such an observation—Collins’ work has the feeling of looking at the world through the eyes of a child. But that, I think, is the way the world should be looked at—with whimsy and fascination and questioning wonder. Collins makes us stop and focus on one thing at a time, and then gently throws in a thought that makes us reconsider, usually with a smile.

There are so many gems here, but I think my favorite is “See No Evil,” in which Collins contemplates the curious predicament of the center monkey on his mantelpiece, after the monkeys to his right and left, “hear no evil” and “speak no evil” respectively, have absconded. That last lonely monkey sits in silence, his eyes covered, wondering about the other two:

And some nights in the quiet house,
he wishes he could break the silence with a question.

but he knows that the one on his right
would not be able to hear,
and the one on the left,
according to their sacred oath—
the one they all took with one paw raised—
is forbidden forever to speak, even in reply. 

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