At his reading at Rollins College last week, poet Billy Collins read a poem that elicited a soft and heart-felt “awwww” from the audience. One of two dog poems he read, it’s called “A Dog on His Master.” He looked at the audience with that slightly sheepish, sweet smile he has, and said, “Oh see, there you go. You made that sound.” It wasn’t clear if he was gently chastising us or the poem. Read it here, and see if you, too, feel a lovely heart-tug with the last image.
As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.
(Bet you made the sound, didn’t you?)
Collins explained that the trouble with poems about animals is that they can “lose ironic traction,” and I thought, what a helpful observation about a poem gone just a tad off-track. (Though, in my opinion, “A Dog on His Master” in no way goes off-track.) He went on to say that when a poem loses ironic traction it risks “slipping back into a swamp of sentimentality.”
Isn’t that a great metaphor for a poem that has gone slightly soft, or a little precious? In addition, the robust sound of phrases like “ironic traction” and “swamp of sentimentality” is so satisfying. Driving down Aloma the next day, I caught myself repeating the sentence–“A poem can lose ironic traction and slip backwards into sentimentality.”
And while I would say Collins’ poems never fall prey to such slippage, his pithy critique can be made of many loose-limbed poems. And then, of course, because this is just what I do, I thought how easy it is for me to lose ironic traction these days and find myself sliding unwittingly into that same swamp of sentimentality. I see myself dog-paddling in murky waters, pushing away dozens of bad poems as I go.
Billy Collins offers a good cautionary note for writers, and for lovers, too.