Problem was, they didn't use Billy Collins
I'm going to riff off this Kevin Drum post I snagged from Atrios for a second. Drum blasts the Washington Post Sunday magazine for doing a pretty dumb experiment--stationing a world class violinist at a DC Metro stop for an hour (presumably playing) and seeing if anyone noticed. Drum says:
I'm sorry, but this is just idiotic. No one recognized Bell because even famous violinists don't have famous faces. No one cared much about his music because probably no more than five people out of a hundred enjoy classical music at all — and fewer still recognize the difficult pieces he decided to play. What's more, I'd be surprised if as many as one out of a hundred can tell a good violinist from a great one even in good conditions. And despite the claim that the acoustics of the L'Enfant Plaza station were "surprisingly kind," I'm sure they were nothing of the sort.
And he's right. Sometimes those of us who work in specialized fields forget that most of the world has no clue who we are, or even who the best known (not necessarily most talented or best at what they do) in our fields are.
At the beginning of every semester, I ask my 2000 level Poetry students if they can name any living poets. They usually can't. If I expand it to include the entire 20th century, I might get Robert Frost out of them. If I expand it to all poetry ever written, Shakespeare pops in for a visit. And it's generally not much better in my workshops. Outside of our little world, no one knows us.
The biggest seller of poetry today (outside books written by terminally ill children or people famous for something else) is probably Billy Collins, a name that makes most poets who take themselves seriously cringe. And I guarantee that you could do the same experiment with him, and you'd have much the same response, for the same reasons. In fact, the violinist might get a little more attention, assuming he has his case open at his feet as though he was busking for cab fare. The poet would be more likely to get strange looks for his performance.
And given the quality of most of Collins's poems, he might deserve it.
Not to make this a wholesale slam of Collins. I met him briefly when he came to Stanford to give a lecture and a couple of readings, and he's a very congenial, self-effacing man, who seemed to genuinely not understand why he's not held in higher esteem by his fellow poets. And he's got a great schtick when reading his poems--I heard from friends at the reading that they'd never heard a crowd sigh in unison the way they did when Collins would get to the epiphanic moment in his poems. There's something in the way he reads them that makes it seems like there's some depth, some gravitas to his poems that just disappears when you read them in print. But he packed out two readings in sizable halls on Stanford's campus, and there's something to be said for that level of notoriety in a genre like ours where if you sell 5,000 copies of a book, you've got a certified hit on your hands (so I hear--I haven't had the chance yet to find out).
Update: according to Salon, said violinist made 32 bucks by busking for 45 minutes worth of playing. Now true, it was rush hour and he likely wouldn't be able to make that kind of bank all day, but I've held many a job where I might take that home for a full day's work. Maybe I ought to take some of my poems out to the Tri-Rail station and try to make some lunch money on occasion.