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[Comments] (4) Billy Collins, Stand-Up Comic (Bonus: How To Write Poetry): For reasons that need not concern us, I recently gave some advice on writing poetry. I don't know anything about poetry, but I was able to derive the most basic advice from first principles: "read a whole bunch of poetry before you try to write some." Adam Parrish knows more about poetry and offered some poetry-specific advice: "get over yourself".

I think a lot of incipient poets get caught in the idea that poetry is somehow about free self expression, and that the best poetry is that which most freely expresses the self—which, of course, isn't true. Poetry is a genre that you have to be literate in and a toolbox that you have to learn how to use.

If reading a bunch of poetry is too much work for you, you should at least take the time to reverse-engineer the findings of this paper by Michael Coleman (also via Adam), which uses machine learning to model the differences between poems written by members of the Academy of American Poets, and poems written by the general public. It gives some clues as to how the genre works and what's in the toolbox. e.g.:

The negative association with the PYMCP variable ‘Rhy’—a proxy for the extent to which words elicit other words that rhyme with the stimulus word—indicates that professional poets use words that are somewhat unusual but not necessarily complex. Professional poems have fewer words denoting affect but more words denoting number. Professional poems also refer less to the present and to time in general than amateur poems.

Run your stuff through Poetry Assessor until you start getting good scores. Now you're a poet! Well, sort of. The machine-learning algorithm can reliably tag crappy poems as crap, but it mainly looks at vocabulary and I don't think it knows about scansion at all. I ran the first paragraph of Bleak House—three ponderous Victorian sentences—through Poetry Assessor and it got a 1.8, making it a decent twentieth-century American poem. (And it's a very good paragraph, but you see the problem.)

I formulated my "read a lot of poetry" advice because that was also the techinque I used to figure out if I had any more specific advice to give. (I don't.) While reading a lot of poetry, I got really into the work of former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Collins has written a number of what I would call "NPR poems", poems that you could imagine him reading aloud on NPR, some of which he probably did read aloud on NPR. He's on NPR a lot. And at first glance the NPR poems have more in common with stand-up comedy than traditional or contemporary poetry.

I think it's best to think of the narrator of a Billy Collins poem as a fictional poet named "Billy Collins", a man whose bouts of incompetence and perpetual lack of inspiration are exploited by the real-world Billy Collins. Stand-up comics do the same thing. I became very interested in how Collins is able to use this persona to do serious poetic work through poems that aren't serious at all—again, something analogous to what a good stand-up comic does.

Some examples. I'm gonna start with Cheerios and Litany, two poems I don't really like. These poems are about as confrontational as Billy Collins gets, but it's not because of their subject matter: it's because they're poetry hacks.

"Cheerios" has a Poetry Assessor score of 0.8--barely professional quality. In "Cheerios" the incompetent poet "Billy Collins" keeps trying to launch a flight of poetic fancy using the overwrought abstract language associated with amateur poetry: "stooped and threadbare back", "more noble and enduring are the hills". But he can never get it off the ground because the engine keeps stalling on concrete imagery--the objective correlatives associated with professional poetry. The problem with that is the concrete imagery consists of nothing but different breakfast foods ("waited for my eggs and toast", "that dude's older than Cheerios", "illuminated my orange juice"). So it's deliberately bad amateur poetry interrupted by deliberately bad professional poetry. Just saying it's a bad poem isn't enough. It's bad in a very interesting, bathetic way.

On the other hand, "Litany" has the incredibly high Poetry Assessor score of 4.4. (The maximum score given in the Coleman paper corresponds to a PA score of 5.2.) What's his secret? Collins spends the entire poem blasting out objective correlatives at high speed. Some of them are taken directly from other poems ("the crystal goblet and the wine"), some of them are allusions ("the plums on the counter", "the burning wheel of the sun"), some are original ("the boat asleep in its boathouse"). But as he shoots those images out, he classifies them, like he's working on an assembly line, or brainstorming the poem he will eventually write. "Litany" is the opposite of "Cheerios". Collins is hacking the part of your brain that evaluates poetry, pushing all your buttons with free-floating imagery. It's a bad poem because you don't know enough about the people in the poem to understand what the imagery means.

Some other NPR poems, arranged roughly in ascending order of seriousness:

Pay special attention to "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun In The House" and "Nostalgia", two hilarious poems that are literally highbrow stand-up comedy. "Gun" is Seinfeld-esque, employing the tricks of modern poetry to take an exasperating everyday situation and blow it up into series of escalating fantastic images. (In case you were wondering, its Poetry Assessor score is 2.2, squarely on the "professional" side.) "Nostalgia" (1.3) is more of a Steve Martin kind of comedy, presenting logically flawed arguments and the dumb things people say when they're arguing on autopilot.

"Nostalgia" escalates not to a punchline--a funny kind of absurdity--but to a reductio ad absurdum, a logical absurdity. That makes it a good transition to two Collins poems that, although they deal with ephemeral topics, are more serious and less jokey. They both deal with words, the relationship between words and reality, and the fact that we're always putting words into boxes that themselves have no relationship with reality:

"First Reader" (2.9) is my favorite Collins poem. I feel like "American Sonnet" is the most professionally composed of his poems, and Poetry Assessor agrees, giving it the highest score (3.2) of any of the poems I tested. (Apart from "Litany", which is a poetry hack.) I tried writing down some analysis but these two are easy poems to appreciate, so I'll spare you. I want to close with two poems that I'm not crazy about as a whole, but which do a really interesting thing in the last stanza: they anthropomorphize individual words.

"Paperwork" shows fictional poet "Billy Collins" not being able to write a poem, dreaming in the end of gaining inspiration from an "ancient noun who lives alone in a forest." "Thesaurus" is all about anthropomorphizing words, but it's not until the end that the words leave "the warehouse of Roget" and take on independent lives, "wandering the world where they sometimes fall/in love with a completely different word."

Anthropomorphizing words is how Collins deals with the fact that poetry is a lonely business: writing things down all day, making sure to use exactly the right word all the time. Who else needs to be that careful about individual words? Stand-up comics, that's who. A punchline and a poem both rely on an unexpected word at exactly the right time. That word, when it comes along, is your best friend.

PS: Minor error in the Coleman paper which confused me when I was trying to convert between the paper's scores and Poetry Assessor scores.

For example, Robert Hass has two poems in the corpus, The Image and Our Lady of the Snows, which score in the high to very high range of .72 and .94, respectively.

Those numbers should be reversed. "The Image" has a score of .94 (PA: 5.2), and "Our Lady of the Snows" has .72 (PA: 1.1)

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Posted by Mike at Thu Jul 11 2013 13:11

I've heard Billy Collins read poems on NPR - specifically The Lanyard and the one from the perspective of the dog come to mind as poems that could easily be re-worked into comedy routines. He often appears on Prairie Home Companion in skits as himself and these usually work pretty well.

Posted by Simon at Fri Jul 12 2013 03:57

Actually, on second thought I have a second non-stephen-crane example:


Posted by Simon at Fri Jul 12 2013 04:35

Oh, also, speaking of charlie brooker and stand-up comics disguised as poets:


Posted by Leonard at Wed Jul 17 2013 12:39

I've been writing books. Some might consider that an "unproductive mental state."

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