Tuesday, October 19, 2010

They say you can't judge a book by its cover...

...but can you judge it by its title? This question occurred to me at a reading in a library in Nottingham at the weekend. On a table arrayed with poetry books - presumably for National Poetry Day - I spotted "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by the feted American poet Billy Collins. Would the contents of the book be as crass as the title, I wondered? I'll never know, as I've read enough of Collins' poetry not to want to subject myself to any more, but I could guess. I can understand why Collins would wish to associate himself with Dickinson, as her poetry scaled the very summit of poetic achievement, while his saunters around the base of the foothills glancing longingly but ironically at the heights. The title of the book foregrounds Dickinson's assumed lack of sexual experience, contrasting it with Collins' own (presumably) ampler knowledge, and implying that what that buttoned-up spinster needed was a man like him to... it also implies that Collins is generally more sophisticated, not just sexually, but poetically and personally. I reflected, on the bus home after the reading, that although the title of Collins' book is smart-arse, supercilious, sexist and presumptious, it's main attribute is in fact vanity. I further mused on the notion that there is perhaps no person in the world as vain as a writer who, at some profound level, is compensating for the yawning gap between his public recognition and his actual achievement; the opposite in fact, of what Dickinson experienced during her lifetime.

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