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date: 24 November 2017

Collins, Billy

Billy Collins is the most popular poet in America, according to a 1999 article in the New York Times. Named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001–2003, Collins appears often on public radio and his readings are packed with enthusiastic fans. Collins's work—funny, accessible, and wry—receives high marks from many corners of mainstream criticism, and he sells more books of poetry than anyone since Robert Frost. However, it is these very qualities that cause others to question Collins's achievement. Despite, or perhaps because of, the broad appeal of these poems, some think Collins's work is too clever or, because it is often funny, classify the work as light verse. Collins does not have much patience for the division that pits his poetry against “serious” work. “Poetry,” he says, “isn't supposed to make you feel dumb, it's supposed to enhance your life.”

Early Career

Collins was born in New York on 22 March 1941. He began his career in letters by earning a Ph.D. in Romantic literature from the University of California, Riverside, in 1971. His dissertation, noteworthy in relationship to his own long path to find a reading public, was entitled “Wordsworth and the Romantic Search for an Audience.” Later in 1971, he started teaching at Lehman College (part of the City University of New York) in the Bronx.

Collins's first real success came after placing poems in a handful of the more prestigious literary journals. He then published The Apple That Astonished Paris with the University of Arkansas Press in 1988. The poems in this volume represent a break from his previous work. Collins says that up until this point he wrote in the obscure style he has since come to ridicule. The breakthrough in this volume is the establishment of a character who can be the speaker of the poems. Collins says, “This character has a tone of voice, rather than a fictional life. He is a fairly attractive fellow, a greatly improved version of myself.” The creation of this voice allowed Collins to achieve a balanced tone, equally serious and humorous, as a platform for his deadpan delivery. Tone is perhaps the most important consideration for Collins. He calls it “the key signature for the poem. The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it's tone that establishes the poet's authority.” In The Apple That Astonished Paris, Collins creates a voice that provides the flexibility that Collins needs for the imaginative flights his work takes. For Collins, the beginning of a piece is important not only for setting the tone, but also for inviting the reader into the poem. “Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House” begins by setting the scene in straightforward, narrative exposition: “The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.” This sets up the central imaginative leap that, as in most of Collins's poems, serves as the single controlling metaphor of the poem. After the speaker puts a Beethoven symphony on full blast to drown out the sound of the barking, he then can see the dog “sitting in the orchestra, / his head raised confidently as if Beethoven / had included a part for barking dog.” It is as if the dog is “sitting there in the oboe section barking…while the other musicians listen in respectful/ silence to the famous barking dog solo.” The barking continues after the recording has stopped, just as it seems to trail off at the end of the poem.

His second book, Questions about Angels (1991), was selected for the National Poetry Series and began attracting a larger audience to his work. In this book, Collins starts to perfect the character of the rueful, suburban man, a creature of habit who mainly wants to sit in his study thinking about poems or listening to jazz. Every once in a while, he (and it is always “he,” a version of the “greatly improved” Collins) is forced to do chores or go shopping. The only way to deal with these disruptions is to let his imagination loose while it looks like he is simply standing in line or looking for a parking place. In the poem American Sonnet, even the notion of a summer trip to Europe seems too ambitious. For Collins, the American version of the sonnet is the postcard where, instead of fourteen lines dictating the form, the length is whatever we can write “on the back of a waterfall or lake.” This sonnet is not an occasion to express love or religious ecstasy; rather, “We express the wish that you were here / and hide the wish that we were where you are.” Much of Collins's work is in celebration of the insignificant, the quotidian, and in this poem, the trip not taken.

In the wake of this award-winning book, Collins forged a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Press. With The Art of Drowning, published in 1995, and Picnic, Lightning, published three years later, Collins settles into a sustained body of work, collections that show an increasing authority and a consistency of tone. He has mastered a jazzy, improvisational style, a tone that is often counter-balanced by setting the poems in a very domestic scene. While this might suggest that the work would become tamer and more predictable, in fact, the poems have a greater distance to travel between the poles of the actual suburban world and the wildly eccentric leaps that occur in the Collins cosmos.

The poems now settle into a familiar pattern. The syntax is similar to the syntax of prose: straightforward and direct, it is designed to communicate as plainly as possible rather than tickle the ear or dazzle the reader. Enjambment is rare, with most of the line-breaks occurring on a comma or natural pause. The poems typically create a sort of philosophical narrative. They begin by posing a central metaphor; the rest of the poem is a playful development of that single notion. The language is clear and American, in the slightly outdated diction of a wry, aging hipster who likes jazz slang. The flat delivery has a natural cadence and relies on colloquialisms for color. A poem will usually use only one or two figures of speech to complicate the texture of the poem, usually a well-turned image or small but apt metaphor. An example is “Osso Buco,” a contrarian's poem that sings of the pleasures of a full stomach, “something you don't hear much about in poetry, / that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.” One of the few images occurs when “the lion of contentment / has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest.” The poem ends with the speaker slipping into a deep, satisfied sleep where dreams carry him into the “broken bones of the earth itself, / into the marrow of the only place we know.”

Rise to Popularity

After Picnic, Lightning, Collins became an overnight sensation—at the age of fifty-seven. He appeared on two nationally syndicated radio programs and sales of the book jumped sharply. At this point, Random House offered him a stunning six-figure advance for three books. This was a major event in the poetry world, not only because of the size of the advance but also because the offer sparked a major disagreement between the University of Pittsburgh Press and Random House. Random House wanted its first book to be a collection of new and selected poems, but the University of Pittsburgh Press was not ready to release the rights to its poems. The disagreement threw into high relief the role of small presses and the best way for a poet to reach an audience. Eventually, these differences were resolved and Random House published Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems in 2001. The collection included representative work from the books discussed here along with twenty new poems, work very much in the same voice and tone as the previous two volumes.

Collins was named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001–2002, and renamed to the post for 2002–2003. He was very quickly called upon to offer a poet's perspective in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. He responded that poetry is not concerned with the transitory and so has little ability to make immediate sense of the moment. He said that it is the timeless aspect of poetry that unifies and that all poems, by speaking for life, speak against the tragedy of the day.

Nine Horses: Poems was published in 2002. No doubt Collins will continue to present his unique vision, that the world is more amusing than we acknowledge, more yielding to our careful attention, and more terrible. For all of its attractive qualities, Billy Collins's poetry does not sidestep the more difficult parts of life. Each new book brings new readers to poetry and sparks further controversy over this accessible and popular poet.


Pokerface (1977)Find this resource:

Video Poems (1980)Find this resource:

The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems (1988)Find this resource:

Questions about Angels: Poems (1991)Find this resource:

The Best Cigarette (1993)Find this resource:

The Art of Drowning (1995)Find this resource:

Picnic, Lightning (1998)Find this resource:

Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001)Find this resource:

Nine Horses: Poems (2002)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Gray, Jason. Picnic, Lightning. Prairie Schooner 75 (Spring 2001): 189.Find this resource:

Kirsch, Adam. Over Easy (Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems). New Republic (29 October 2001): 38.Find this resource:

Merrin, Jeredith. Art Over Easy. Southern Review 38 (Winter 2002): 202.Find this resource:

O'Driscoll, Denis. Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems. Poetry 180 (April 2002): 32.Find this resource:

Plimpton, George. The Art of Poetry LXXXIII. Paris Review, no. 159 (Fall 2001).Find this resource: