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Windows, Toast, and Tea

By: Robert Crawford
April 30, 2017

illy Collins has made a fortune—at least by poets’ standards—employing a self-aware, slightly self-deprecating tone that assures the reader that despite the appearance of sentences broken into lines, he is not making any great claims or imparting important truths. Other poets do that, his books imply, but he, dear reader, is not one of them.

It was only a matter of time before “one of them” fired back. A.M Juster, author of eight poetry books and three-time winner of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, has taken a shot in his latest, The Billy Collins Experience—a book of 34 poems that all, in one way or another, make fun of Billy Collins and his poetry.

Conveniently, Billy Collins sets himself up for this. (Juster can comfort himself with the notion that Billy was asking for it.) In a recent interview on NPR, Collins talked about fretting a poem into being. “If a poem isn’t working or it doesn’t feel right,” he said. “I just let it go and get on with the next thing, which could be writing another poem or making more toast.” He is obviously aware of the potential for parody, aware enough that he does it to himself.

Collins begins the first section of his book, “The Trouble with Poetry,” with a poem titled “Monday”:

The birds are in the trees,
The toast is in the toaster,
And the poets are at their windows.

There are many windows, and slices of toast—some buttered, some not—in Billy Collins’s work. It is proper that a good parody of Billy Collins should go after just those things, and Juster does not disappoint. His poem, titled “Tuesday” begins:

The birds were in the trees,
The toast in its toaster,
And poets at their windows.

The Billy Collins Experience is full of windows, toast, and tea. Yet it is both more humorous and clever than this fact would lead you to believe. In the above poem, for example, “windows” takes on another meaning:

Imagine—
in a time before Windows,
poets would have owned erasers

It’s also a little cruel at times, which is a problem with parody in general. The first poem in this book “Love Poem” brilliantly captures the self-absorption of our age:

They say you have to love yourself
to love another
and so for you, dear,
only for you,
I am focusing only on myself.

But is this a fair comment on Billy Collins himself? Is he that self-absorbed? In “Bold Stance,” Collins is given tiny, dangly arms. In “Recurrent Nightmare” he is a leprechaun hobbling ungracefully through a lurid Frederic Edwin Church landscape painting. In “Emily Dickenson’s Restraining Order” a wimpy Collins complains:

…I don’t think about distance
in terms of football fields
having never actually played the game
except for that one humiliating afternoon
on the Jersey shore
where I broke my nose.

There is no doubt that Collins makes himself an easy target. These lines from “My Life,” for example, sail right past the boundary between self-reflection and self-absorption:

I am a lake, my poem an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches…

Thankfully, what kept me laughing, and from feeling too sorry for Collins, was that many of the poems in The Billy Collins Experience take up causes and humor that are Juster’s and not Collins’s. In these poems, Juster uses Collins’s style to skewer the substance of targets that Juster wants to take down: lawyers, bureaucrats, insurance companies, and academics. Such characters are notably absent from Collins’s poetry.

“Crowded Skies” is a wonderful spoof on the bureaucratic world, with which Juster, as a former head of the Social Security Administration, is all too familiar. A “sumptuous woman” from the Registry of Motor Vehicles makes a house call to provide a new license. A representative from the insurance company calls to apologize, and a “sweet smelling note” arrives in the mail from a cheerleader who had rejected him in high school. In short,

…I did notice
a sow followed by a string of piglets
straining to stay airborne
with their unfamiliar wings
as they crossed my line of vision
outside the kitchen window.

Juster saves his best barbs for the politicians and lawyers. In “Resolutions,” with Collins’s voice, he pokes fun at Congress for finally putting aside partisan differences to declare a “National Dairy Goat Awareness Month.” (I’m not brave enough to ascertain whether this is or isn’t a real thing.) It features a lobbyist “reeking / with the aftershave of billable hours”—a remarkable conceit. In the middle of “Loot,” Juster’s Billy Collins cannot dislodge the vision of a blindfolded

intellectual property attorney,
armed only with a temporary restraining order,
hopping down the plank
with a sword point pecking his ass
as he approached an abyss
of watery and unbillable hours.

Some of the best lines in the book are achieved by an alchemy: lines written in a Collins state of mind, but ones that neither Juster nor Collins would normally write. “You and I at Breakfast” has this:

Perhaps if I could imagine
a goldfish language, passed down by dolphins,…

“Wayward” has a pathos that is neither Collins’s nor Juster’s.

What if he is lost,
his trail back to the comforts of the hive
irreconcilable with his memories,
and his recognition
of permanent isolation just
sinking in as we watch

A formalist like Juster cannot parody Collins, who once wrote a poem, “Sonnet,” that made fun of sonnets, without making fun of free verse. In “Why Verse Should be Free Range,” Juster has Collins complain, in thinly disguised iambic pentameter, about the difficulty of writing in form. After mentioning Shakespeare and Milton in passing, he asks

Why should a random scheme
compel the loss
of any poet’s well turned
lines and phrases?

The answer, of course, is Shakespeare and Milton.