Better Know A Poet Laureate: Billy Collins
What do people want from poetry? A song to sing, an image to remember, a rallying cry that inspires? Wait, it's okay, I'm not sure either!
One of the jobs of the US Poet Laureate is to advocate for poetry and its appreciation. During his time in the Laureate seat from 2001 - 2003, Billy Collins worked on a project called Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry. The goal was to put together a collection of 180 accessible, thought-provoking poems for high schoolers to read, one per day. The collection and its sequel, 180 More, can be found in the library catalog, as well as linked below.
Beyond those specific collections, Collins enjoys uncommon popularity and success as a poet. His books earn record-setting advances, and his reading appearances are regularly standing room only. I know this because Collins read for a packed audience at the University of South Carolina a few years ago and he was every bit the gentle humorist his poetry led me to believe. While waiting in line for him to sign a book, I wrote a suggested dedication for him to use and he put aside my sticky note while saying, "I'm not going to write that." How many poet laureate rejections can I collect? We shall see!
Describing his exact method or style is difficult, if only because his seems so simple to read. He is a master at starting with one image, linking one idea to the next with little segueways, then ending on a thought that punctuates the entire poem just right. These books are concerned with amused or slanted observations about things and read in what I would call "plain English." His style could be called What You See Is What You Get, and he sometimes writes to the struggle with absorbing poetry. The following are two poems by Collins that address the reading of poetry. He concludes with praise for "a very strong feeling, / a very powerful sense of something." Discovering and sharing those powerful somethings is the invisible art that keeps poetry alive, even if we have yet to define how or why.
Introduction To Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.
What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging I like jigging
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.
Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.
But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.
Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright © 1988 by Billy Collins.
Billy Collins, “Workshop” from The Art of Drowning. Copyright © 1995 by Billy Collins.
Amazon Amazon Says:
In 1988 the University of Arkansas Press published Billy Collins's THE APPLE THAT ASTONISHED PARIS, his "first real book of poems," as he describes it in a new, delightful pre more...
In 1988 the University of Arkansas Press published Billy Collins's THE APPLE THAT ASTONISHED PARIS, his "first real book of poems," as he describes it in a new, delightful preface written expessly for this new printing to help celebrate both the Press's twenty-fifth anniversary and this book, one of the Press's all-time best sellers. In his usual witty and dry style, Collins writes, "I gathered together what I considered my best poems and threw them in the mail." After "what seemed like a very long time" Press director Miller Williams, a poet as well, returned the poems to him in the "familiar self-addressed, stamped envelope." He told Collins that there was good work here but that there was work to be done before he'd have a real collection he and the Press could be proud of: "Williams's words were more encouraging than I had ever gotten before and more than enough to inspire me to begin taking my writing more seriously than I had before." This collection includes some of Collins's most anthologized poems, including "Introduction to Poetry," "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House," and "Advice to Writers." Its success over the years is testament to Collin's talent as one of our best poets, and as he writes in the preface, "the new edition . . . is a credit to the sustained vibrancy of the University of Arkansas Press and, I suspect, to the abiding spirit of its former director, my first editorial father." less...
Amazon Amazon Says:
This collection of poems has a subject matter ranging from the gustatory pleasures of osso buco to an analysis of the handwriting of Keats; from the art form of the calendar p more...
This collection of poems has a subject matter ranging from the gustatory pleasures of osso buco to an analysis of the handwriting of Keats; from the art form of the calendar pinup to blues music. less...
Amazon Amazon Says:
"High, most encouraging tidings"--that is how Billy Collins, the widely read and widely acclaimed poet, describes the music in his poem about the gospel singing group The Sens more...
"High, most encouraging tidings"--that is how Billy Collins, the widely read and widely acclaimed poet, describes the music in his poem about the gospel singing group The Sensational Nightingales. The same phrase applies, just as joyfully, to the arrival of Sailing Alone Around the Room, a landmark collection of new and selected poems by this Guggenheim Fellow, NPR contributor, New York Public Library "Literary Lion," and incomparably popular performer of his own good works. From four earlier collections, which have secured for him a national reputation, Collins offers the lyric equivalent of an album of Greatest Hits. In "Forgetful-ness," memories of the contents of a novel "retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones." In "Osso Buco," a poem about gustatory pleasure, the "lion of content-ment" places a warm heavy paw on the poet's chest. In "Marginalia," he catalogs the scrawled comments of books' previous readers: " 'Absolutely,' they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. 'Yes.' 'Bull's-eye.' 'My man!' " And he also serves us a generous portion of new poems, including "Man Listening to Disc," a jazz trip with headphones, and "The Iron Bridge," a wildly speculative, moving elegy. Whether old or new, these poems will catch their readers by exhilarating surprise. They may begin with irony and end in lyric transcendence. They may open with humor and close with grief. They may, and often do, begin with the everyday and end with infinity. Wise, funny, sad, stealthy, and always perfectly clear, these poems will not be departing for that little fishing village with no phones for a long, long time. Billy Collins, possessed of a unique lyric voice, is one of American poetry's most sensational nightingales. less...
Amazon Amazon Says:
Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America’s two-term Poet Laureate has opened the more...
Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America’s two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed. Like the present book’s title, Collins’s poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony, “Poetry speaks to all people, it is said, but here I would like to address / only those in my own time zone”–but also with quiet observation, intense wonder, and a reverence for the everyday: “The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows. / They are at their windows in every section of the tangerine of earth–the Chinese poets looking up at the moon, / the American poets gazing out / at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.” Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn’t have to be obscure or incomprehensible, qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with most “serious” poetry: “By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet.” In this dazzling new collection, his first in three years, Collins explores boyhood, jazz, love, the passage of time, and, of course, writing–themes familiar to Collins’s fans but made new here. Gorgeous, funny, and deeply empathetic, Billy Collins’s poetry is a window through which we see our lives as if for the first time. less...
Amazon Amazon Says:
A Billy Collins poem is instantly recognizable. “Using simple, understandable language,” notes USA Today, the two-term U.S. Poet Laureate “captures ordinary life–its p more...
A Billy Collins poem is instantly recognizable. “Using simple, understandable language,” notes USA Today, the two-term U.S. Poet Laureate “captures ordinary life–its pleasure, its discontents, its moments of sadness and of joy.” His everyman approach to writing resonates with readers everywhere and generates fans who would otherwise never give a poem a second glance. Now, in this stunning new collection, Collins touches on a greater array of subjects–love, death, solitude, youth, and aging–delving deeper than ever before. Ballistics comes at the reader full force with moving and playful takes on life. Drawing inspiration from the world around him and from such poetic forebears as Robert Frost, Paul Valéry, and eleventh-century poet Liu Yung, Collins drolly captures the essence of an ordinary afternoon: All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge where there are no pheasants to be seen and, last time I looked, no ridge. Collins reflects on his solitude: If I lived across the street from myself and I was sitting in the dark on the edge of the bed at five o’clock in the morning, I might be wondering what the light was doing on in my study at this hour. And he meditates on the effects of love: It turns everything into a symbol like a storm that breaks loose in the final chapter of a long novel. And it may add sparkle to a morning, or deepen a night when the bed is ringed with fire. As Collins strives to find truth in the smallest detail, readers are given a fascinating, intimate glimpse into the heart and soul of a brilliantly thoughtful man and exemplary poet. less...
Amazon Amazon Says:
A dazzling new anthology of 180 contemporary poems, selected and introduced by America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Inspired by Billy Collins’s poem-a-day program with more...
A dazzling new anthology of 180 contemporary poems, selected and introduced by America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Inspired by Billy Collins’s poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress, Poetry 180 is the perfect anthology for readers who appreciate engaging, thoughtful poems that are an immediate pleasure. A 180-degree turn implies a turning back—in this case, to poetry. A collection of 180 poems by the most exciting poets at work today, Poetry 180 represents the richness and diversity of the form, and is designed to beckon readers with a selection of poems that are impossible not to love at first glance. Open the anthology to any page and discover a new poem to cherish, or savor all the poems, one at a time, to feel the full measure of contemporary poetry’s vibrance and abundance. With poems by Catherine Bowman, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, Edward Hirsch, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Philip Levine, Thomas Lux, William Matthews, Frances Mayes, Paul Muldoon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Katha Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Charles Simic, David Wojahn, Paul Zimmer, and many more. less...