The Billy Collins Experience
by A. M. Juster.
Kelsay Books, 2016.
Paperback, 66 pages, $14.
“Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going.” In a fit of concision, the poet Billy Collins managed to define his aesthetic, and his career. Despite his modesty, he has wandered into the kind of success that makes other poets blackheartedly jealous. He pulled down a landmark six-figure deal for three books of poems, and his volumes are in doctors’ offices and on bedside tables, on university syllabuses and on the shelves of libraries. And look—The Billy Collins Experience—is this a new collection? The cover of the book has a screenprint image of Collins, in the style of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 “HOPE” portrait of President Obama; a shiver of smug delight ensues. But that laurel, that wreath of poetic honor on his brow—isn’t it hanging a little off-kilter?
A. M. Juster’s The Billy Collins Experience is the best satire of twenty-first century poetry yet. His new book pretends to be a collection, gathered from (fictional) books of Billy Collins’s unpublished work. These books match every step of Collins’s real career. Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes has become Gerald Ford Eaten By Wolves. And Collins is exactly the type to mistake titles like Rapture with Paperclips and Forgetting about Amnesia for the paradoxes of John Donne, when they’re basically freshman-dorm wit.
What exactly is the quality of Collins’s verse? Juster has chosen a genuinely popular poet; Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States for two years, from 2001 to 2003. While Laureate, he wrote a long poem called “The Names,” which was a response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the poem, the victims of the attack become as ephemeral as the letters of their names, which fall apart and cease to identify individuals,and instead spark various fancies from Collins’s mournful pen. In the face of tremendous suffering, Collins’s instinct is to twirl his spoon among the swirling and spinning of Alpha-Bits cereal.
Collins is plain, he is simple, he is everyday—most of all, he does not seem like a poet, one of those precious types who insists on making everything complicated. In one poem from Nine Horses, Collins writes about the jazz musician Eric Dolphy, who died at thirty-six. He realizes in the same moment that it’s been thirty-six years since Dolphy died. He flounders about the moment, trying to make it say something, and ends up with the coincidence meaning something about his own mortality, as he “walked down in the rain to get the mail.” Many people happen on thoughts like this throughout the day, minor synchronicities that bubble across the mind and flit away. Collins believes that fastening onto these moments is proof of his profundity. You may laugh at him for being a simpleton, but after all, isn’t that exactly what some uptight bourgeois says about a poet?
Juster has called Collins “self-satisfied,” which cuts to the heart of the problem with Collins’s poetry. When asked by the Paris Review if the poet laureate was required to celebrate “great events,” Collins replied, “You must be confusing me with John Dryden.” Of course, he doesn’t mean to pick on Dryden in particular, he has no special quarrel with Dryden’s Aeneid or Absalom and Achitophel; Dryden just sounds fusty and traditional enough to serve as Collins’s straw man.
Collins has always been quick to retreat behind the armor of a tradition that he doesn’t much respect, except for as an opportunity for burlesque. He will not attempt to match the icy fragments of Emily Dickinson’s verse, her shards of insight that haunt the verge of augury, of prophetic power. But he will title a book Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. He is the bohemian of the cul-de-sac, the Orpheus of the poodle kennel, the Rimbaud of the organic food section.
All of which makes Collins the perfect foil for A. M. Juster, translator, poet, and critic. Juster tends to call his poems “formal verse,” meaning poetry that typically rhymes, conforms to meter, and reads smoothly across the line. Two hundred years ago, a definition like that would have sufficed for nearly anything that passed as poetry. That it now only covers a sliver of poetry, compared to the immense flood of “free verse” published every year, testifies to how easily Modernist techniques are commodified and bastardized.
Juster is himself not especially interested in the experimental styles of the past hundred years. He has translated brilliantly from the Roman poets Horace and Tibullus. He turns away from Modernist heroes like Propertius and Catullus, who are both too idiosyncratic and wild in their phrasings. Instead, he prefers a Horace, whose moral composure and relatively straightforward grammar made him a favorite of the schoolroom.
In interviews, Juster has expressed some displeasure with the translations of Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, for being too free with their source material. But Juster takes Collins on in a way similar to Pound’s translations. Pound used Personae as the title for a book of his translations and imitations. In Latin, “persona” means “mask,” and Pound did not translate other authors so much as he spoke through them.
Similarly, The Billy Collins Experience is a ventriloquism. On one level, Juster writes in Collins’s house style, resulting in lines like “Note to self: becomemore aware,” and “The tea is bad, bread sad.” Every parody is also a critique, and so Juster makes use of Collins’s crutches and tells. He notices Collins’s fascination with staring out windows: “what the nut was to the squirrel/and the clogged pipe to the plumber/so too the window was to the poet.” The lonely New England poet staring out the window was already a cliche in 1962, when Vladimir Nabokov used it for the opening lines of his fictional poet’s Pale Fire. He notices that Collins’s whimsy often fails to rise above basic navel-gazing. He opens the collection with “Love Poem,” about Billy’s relationship with Billy, and in “Self portraits,” shows Collins fantasizing about “an infinite regress/of me’s writing self-portraits/out to an infinite horizon.”
So who is our ventriloquist? His career shows a careful cultivation of traditional poetic effects—irony, subtle contrasts in tone and register, and the plain music of carefully wrought lines. But A. M. Juster is a remarkably reserved poet. Even when he approaches intimacy, there’s still a layer of restraint. In his remarkable “Cancer Prayer,” Juster prays for “her,” an unnamed woman suffering through the trials of cancer treatment. But who is she? Who is she to our author? Where is this? In our time—the era of Billy Collins—readers of poetry are used to the poet’s flesh lying on the page.
Although writing poems is not an especially reliable pathway to exposure, Juster insisted on using a pen name, and wrote in almost total anonymity. Only in 2010 was A. M. Juster revealed to be Michael Astrue, appointed by President George W. Bush as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. As Juster, he has written frankly, to be sure: his poem “Moscow Zoo” has more to do with mass graves and repression than with giraffes and lions.
However, a mask also allows the wearer to speak with a new freedom. It can’t be said enough—the book is hilarious. The poems in The Billy Collins Experience show a wicked, hilariously profane sense of humor—as when Juster’s Collins decides that “removing my penis … does not make me/less of a man,/just more a poet.” He describes a peddler of “placebo Viagra” being forced to walk the plank, “a sword point pecking his ass.” Juster has tried on the fool’s clothes, and found that they fit nicely for a rampage.
The poet Alexander Pope claimed that “no one qualification is so likely to make a good writer, as the power of rejecting his own thoughts.” That same internal editor has more often than not hidden the man behind the A. M. Juster persona. In one last prank, the snippet biography at the end of the volume uses Billy Collins’s resume, with a “never” inserted before each plaudit and achievement. Juster is an artist of true, fine finish, and he leaves no detail unworked. But it’s exciting to see him caper, and to believe that he doesn’t know where he’s going—even if it’s all one long gag.
Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.