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The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins

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.

Workshop

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 Says: NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER “America’s favorite poet.”—The Wall Street Journal From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his firs more...
Amazon Says: NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER “America’s favorite poet.”—The Wall Street Journal From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his first volume of new and selected poems in twelve years. Aimless Love combines fifty new poems with generous selections from his four most recent books—Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Collins’s unmistakable voice, which brings together plain speech with imaginative surprise, is clearly heard on every page, reminding us how he has managed to enrich the tapestry of contemporary poetry and greatly expand its audience. His work is featured in top literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic, and he sells out reading venues all across the country. Appearing regularly in The Best American Poetry series, his poems appeal to readers and live audiences far and wide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. By turns playful, ironic, and serious, Collins’s poetry captures the nuances of everyday life while leading the reader into zones of inspired wonder. In the poet’s own words, he hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” Touching on the themes of love, loss, joy, and poetry itself, these poems showcase the best work of this “poet of plenitude, irony, and Augustan grace” (The New Yorker). Envoy   Go, little book, out of this house and into the world,   carriage made of paper rolling toward town bearing a single passenger beyond the reach of this jittery pen and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.   It is time to decamp, put on a jacket and venture outside, time to be regarded by other eyes, bound to be held in foreign hands.   So off you go, infants of the brain, with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:   stay out as late as you like, don’t bother to call or write, and talk to as many strangers as you can. Praise for Aimless Love   “[Billy Collins] is able, with precious few words, to make me cry. Or laugh out loud. He is a remarkable artist. To have such power in such an abbreviated form is deeply inspiring.”—J. J. Abrams, The New York Times Book Review   “His work is poignant, straightforward, usually funny and imaginative, also nuanced and surprising. It bears repeated reading and reading aloud.”—The Plain Dealer   “Collins has earned almost rock-star status. . . . He knows how to write layered, subtly witty poems that anyone can understand and appreciate—even those who don’t normally like poetry. . . . The Collins in these pages is distinctive, evocative, and knows how to make the genre fresh and relevant.”—The Christian Science Monitor   “Collins’s new poems contain everything you've come to expect from a Billy Collins poem. They stand solidly on even ground, chiseled and unbreakable. Their phrasing is elegant, the humor is alive, and the speaker continues to stroll at his own pace through the plainness of American life.”—The Daily Beast   “[Collins’s] poetry presents simple observations, which create a shared experience between Collins and his readers, while further revealing how he takes life’s everyday humdrum experiences and makes them vibrant.”—The Times Leader less...
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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...
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 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...
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Amazon Says: Over the past decade, Billy Collins has emerged as the most beloved American poet since Robert Frost, garnering critical acclaim and broad popular appeal. To celebrate his yea more...
Amazon Says: Over the past decade, Billy Collins has emerged as the most beloved American poet since Robert Frost, garnering critical acclaim and broad popular appeal. To celebrate his years as U.S. Poet Laureate, we are pleased to announce these special, limited editions, in hardcover, of the book that helped establish and secure his reputation during the 1990s. Collin's poetry has been described by Gerald Stern as "heartbreakingly beautiful." Annie Proulx admits, "I have never before felt possessive about a poet, but I am fiercely glad that Billy Collins is ours." John Updike proclaims of these poems: "consistently starling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the world that are and were and some others besides." Everyone has a favorite Collins poem, whether it is his resigned meditation on "Forgetfulness" (Questions About Angels, 1991), his affectinate riff on his mechanic's calendars in "Pinup" (The Art of Drowning, 1995), his delight in "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" (Picnic, Lightning, 1998), or any number of others about his dog; listening to jazz, or wondering whether the "Three Blind Mice" suffer from a congenital condition or were all caught in a fireworks explosion. The Washington Post declares Collins to be in possession of "one of the richest imagination around." Whether reading him for the first time or the fiftieth time, these books are must-haves for anyone interested in the poet the New York Times calls simply "the real thing." less...
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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...
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 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...
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Ballistics: Poems by Billy Collins
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...
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 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...
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Amazon Says: WINNER—BEST POETRY—GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS   NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST   NATIONAL B more...
Amazon Says: WINNER—BEST POETRY—GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS   NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST   NATIONAL BESTSELLER Billy Collins is widely acknowledged as a prominent player at the table of modern American poetry. And in this new collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, the verbal gifts that earned him the title “America’s most popular poet” are on full display. The poems here cover the usual but everlasting themes of love and loss, life and death, youth and aging, solitude and union. With simple diction and effortless turns of phrase, Collins is at once ironic and elegiac, as in the opening lines of the title poem:   Every morning since you disappeared for good, I read about you in the newspaper along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news. Some days I am reminded that today will not be a wildly romantic time for you . . .   And in this reflection on his own transience:   It doesn’t take much to remind me what a mayfly I am, what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party. Standing under the bones of a dinosaur in a museum does the trick every time or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon.   Smart, lyrical, and not afraid to be funny, these new poems extend Collins’s reputation as a poet who occupies a special place in the consciousness of readers of poetry, including the many he has converted to the genre. less...
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