Mr. Billy Collins:
I leave off the ‘Dear’ salutation as a petty violence; could I force you into a corner, could I bludgeon you with crosses and kicks, I might. I’m unsure which of us would be more lowered by such contact.
An Internet feed directed me to a talk you gave at CUNY about the poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Roiling but unsurprised, I skipped the video talk to read the piece, finding exactly what I expected: thinly veiled vulgarity; the hackneyed masculinist explorer motif; a female all too happy to be ‘loosed’ of her icy virgin coat; the Sabbath (comfortably) rebuked; valedictory and obvious allusion (only a ‘celebrity’ writer completely relieved of the burden of self-reflectiveness could pen ‘there were sudden dashes/whenever we spoke’ in context)—frankly, Mr. Collins, I found a bona fide ‘Billy Collins poem,’ cosmetic and sated.
There’s little use in reiterating your poetaster status or engaging in line-by-line evisceration of this piece—its guts are very, very spare, after all.
I come to the poem rather late—it appears to have been written near the year 2000. No matter. However much this note figures as a postscript, let me ask you something: How is it that you lack—even as a self-proclaimed ‘admirer of Emily Dickinson’—the being-to-being sensitivity that would have stopped you short of composing this piece in the fashion you did, reducing the subject to her snippets and her sex? How have you allowed yourself to follow this poem’s ultimately sensationalist, misogynist, commercial trajectory? If you imagine yourself apprenticed to poetry, how precisely have you become such an artistic husk?
Knowing your penchant for off-color avoidance and that reassuring comic turn, I request you answer in earnest, if you can. Allow me the topic sentences: you have never imagined that a poet might have duties; you learned early that book sales afford amazing editorial luxury; most likely, you don’t care to cross-examine what instinct abides.
It isn’t, after all, ‘crosses and kicks’ I’d like to supply you—there’s my unbridled masculinist, heteronormative moment. Don’t forgive me. What I want to force on you is proximity, since it is lack of confrontation that has made you a bold mush, a shapeless bulk riding the lecterns of the world. Thus you turn a woman of expansive, iconoclastic, dire—dire—artistic merit into a receptacle for your banal reflection without the slightest pause. How the nods attend you, Mr. Collins—and you’ve bartered your gossamer integrity for the bit of tenure those nods can proffer.
It’s all too clear why artists of your ilk must address Emily Dickinson as a body primed for sexual contact—she’s accessed too much of existence’s calculus and too much of the numinous for you to approach her vision with the humility such audience demands. Thus you’re left to understand her with the sort of co-opting even feebler intelligences can dream—namely, the dream of fucking. But tenderly, tenderly, Mr. Collins, isn’t it?
That you’ve failed to recognize the patriarchal ‘directedness’ of this exploitative move—or did not care to investigate it—is among your most signal failures as an artist.
I’d like for you to feel my imposition, my size, my seething temper, you and I in that tight corner—all this for your erstwhile dealings with the figure of Emily Dickinson in a badly-conceived poem. Feel how hotly this matter is of consequence. And then, during and after, laugh off my extremism. Enlist the police.
Later, after all laughter, in the space before sleep, consider how your failure might matter across space, screen, and sense—exactly whom or what you have failed in your long artistic recline, or what you might’ve achieved with more aesthetic vigilance.
Now for the closing. This may take a moment.