Billy Collins on Walt Whitman, Buddy Holly, and Poetry’s Visible Games

Billy Collins discusses “Visible Games: Poetry in the Aftermath of Rhyme and Meter.” Photo by Nick Doll.
Billy Collins discusses “Visible Games: Poetry in the Aftermath of Rhyme and Meter.” Photo by Nick Doll.

The second full day of the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar began with a talk by Billy Collins entitled “Visible Games: Poetry in the Aftermath of Rhyme and Meter.” To connect his talk to the theme of this year’s Seminar, Collins reminded us all that poets are the “kings and queens of shortness,” giving a few examples such as Howard Nemerov’s “Bacon and Eggs,” W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” and a haiku of his own.

The main topic of his talk, however, was the disappearance of rhyme and meter from modern poetry and the introduction of other “visible games” in their place. Collins recalled how, during a post-reading Q&A, a young girl asked him why his poems didn’t rhyme, and he confessed that he simply wasn’t very good at it. The reason the girl has asked him this question, Collins speculated, was that she didn’t hear in his work the kind of music she was accustomed to hearing—the rhyme and meter many listeners come to expect from poetry. Rhythms such as the iamb are inherent in human processes like heartbeats and breathing, Collins said, adding that rhythm and meter have long been “the superglue of poetry,” the “ice or salt,” without which, as Yeats said “all that is personal soon rots.”

Collins then pointed to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the work that “took off the training wheels” of rhyme and regular meter, leaving some readers to question if Whitman’s work was even poetry, and others to claim that it was something even greater. After Whitman, Ezra Pound declared the need to “break the back of the iambic pentameter,” and, as Collins said, to throw the baby of rhyme and meter out with the bathwater of Victorian sentimentality. From there, Collins said, end rhymes began to invade the body of the poem, as with the internal exact rhymes and slant rhymes of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.”

A few things are lost and gained by this absence of rhyme and meter, Collins said. First, the musicality that propels a reader forward into the poem, as in C.S. Lewis’s “The Late Passenger.”

Second, the system of trust and comfort that rhyme and meter build with the reader, as in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once established, Collins said, the form of the poem creates a contract that will not let us down; it’s as if “a little machine has been set in motion.” When we have this trust in the form, we can then better trust in the content, he said. “You’re in its grip,” and the “pleasure of the song can seduce you into an agreement with the emotional or conceptual content of the poem.”

Third, Collins said, without rhythm and meter, “we lose a state of consciousness that combines simultaneously knowing and not knowing, knowing something, but not everything, having expectations…but knowing that there will be surprises.” This helps us avoid the boredom that comes from knowing everything, he said, such as in political speeches, and also the confusion of having no point of reference, as can sometimes happen in contemporary poetry.

Collins also played a clip of Buddy Holly’s “Soft Place In My Heart” to show how the pattern of a simple song can create a pattern that’s both soothing and compelling; we know how it works, but we keep wanting more.

Despite his list of what’s sometimes lost without more traditional forms of rhyme and meter, Collins pointed out other innovations to which many contemporary poets often turn, like the regularity of Whitman’s anaphora, or listing. Collins also gave more recent examples of these “visible games” that set up a contract or pattern for the reader, such as Charles Simic’s “Bestiary for the Fingers of my Right Hand,” Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise,” and Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?” These games help the poems to maintain that pleasurable sense of knowing and not knowing traditionally afforded by regular meter and rhyme. They also help to combat Robert Frost’s claim, raised by someone during the morning’s Q&A, that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. As Collins showed, in these modern examples, the poets have simply invented their own nets.

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