by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
December 12, 2001
SEATTLE, Wash. -- The Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, has published what very, very few poets, even those officially sanctioned by the Library of Congress, ever publish: a best-seller.
The title is "Picnic, Lightning" and the publisher, probably still tryin=g to recover from life-threatening astonishment, is the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The moment I saw the title, and before buying the book, I knew that Collins had taken it from Nabokov's novel "Lolita," but I looked in vain through the passage about the picnic at Hour Glass Lake, where Humbert hoped that something like a bolt from the sky would remove the obstacle of Charlotte, his recent wife, and the impediment to his real goal, Lolita.
Finally I located the phrase in a much earlier episode, where Humbert recalls the death of his mother: "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three."
When I located Collins' book in the store I thumbed through it and smiled inwardly, may God forgive me, for his failure to attribute the title to Nabokov. But he does. The epigraph of the title poem is the very sentence quoted above.
All this is prologue to telling you to run out and buy this book at once. It is a feast of contemporary American speech fashioned into the shape of poems that are moving, funny, challenging, and, like the best poetry, mysteriously and happily beyond explication - not that this will dissuade me from trying.
The title that he found in parentheses on a page of Lolita is itself wonderful. It is wonderful in Nabokov's text, too. Look again at that sentence. There is an eerie rightness in the epithet for his mother, "photogenic." One can all but see in that word the flashbulb presaging the bolt of lightning.
Then, lifted out and put on the title page, the words seem to encapsulate the irony of human fate: one of the simplest of family occasions, a quiet rural repast, a picnic, blasted by the most unforeseeable and deadliest weapon of the gods, lightning.
Collins, who is after all a professor of English, seems more than a little aware of the tradition of English poetry. "Moon" refers by name to Matthew Arnold and to S.T. Coleridge.
The poem "Splitting Wood" is indeed about the chore of chopping firewood, but it begins: Frost covered this decades ago,/ and frost will cover it again tonight...
Since the first "Frost" is capitalized at the head of a sentence, one cannot be absolutely sure that Collins is referring to the poet Robert Frost and his virtual copyright on turning such homely country chores into great poetry. It could be a simple reference to the natural phenomenon rather than a self-deprecatory tease.
The poem "Musee des Beaux Arts Revisited" opens with what amounts to a near paraphrase of W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," which begins: About suffering they were never wrong,/ the old masters: how well they understood... Collins: As far as mental anguish goes,/ the old painters were no fools. They understood...
The poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" manages to be funny, and tender, and moving all at once.
In one respect, and in one only, Billy Collins brings Walt Whitman to mind. In poem after poem you feel as if you were being directly addressed. Unlike Whitman, however, Collins is quiet and intimate and also, fortunately for us all, alive.
In another respect, however, he is a dangerous poet, for his poems look so easy and natural that non-poets might be tempted to imitate him. I don't advise it.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofComparative Literature at Princeton University.