Odes by Sharon Olds, Knopf, 108 pages, $26.95; the rain in portugal by Billy Collins, Random House, 108 pages, $26. It’s a funny thing how the very idea of poetry and popularity have changed in America. Think of all those books once sold by Rod McKuen. But while you’re at it, remember how popular Robert Frost once was for his entirely deceptive New England pastoralism (while a dark and nasty and ruthless pessimist quietly lurked within.) For the 21st-century version of “popular” American poets, you couldn’t do better than 73-year-old Sharon Olds and 75-year-old Billy Collins. Not only are they close in age but both can be both witty and funny (not the same thing, despite bloodlines). Both of these new books are the same length – 108 pages. The popularity of both would be immediately understandable.
But similarities do dissolve quickly here. Where Collins is a former poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winner Olds was recently called our poetic “laureate of sexuality” by Dwight Garner of the New York Times. When Laura Bush invited her to Washington in 2005 to take part in a National Book Festival, she very pointedly declined (some would say “rudely”). Some of the poems in her body-centric work in this book are titled: “Ode to the Hymen,” “Ode to the Clitoris,” “Ode to the Penis” and “Ode to the Tampon.” Some others are titled “Ode to My Sister,” “Ode to the Last Thirty-Eight Trees in New York City Visible from My Window,” “Sloan Kettering Ode” and the moving “Stanley Kunitz Ode.” Her concern for the aging body exceeds Rembrandt’s in his self-portraits. There is more tough-mindedness here than sentimentality. Sometimes there is startling loveliness.
Collins has often been touted as modern American poetry’s stand-up comic. At the same time, you can be enormously moved by his writing of a Bill Evans live jazz record from 1960 where a rude listener audibly “chats up a date” while Evans’ plays and reminds Collins to say to the intruder “each member of that trio has died since then/and maybe so have you, and sadly she.” He writes of Keith Richards, Wile E. Coyote, Donald Hall, Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, and “the first generation of people to exist after the death of the English language.” Some popularity couldn’t be more well-earned. – Jeff Simon