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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The wit and poetry of Billy Collins

[Note: This article originally appeared in the PoetsWho Make Us Better column on Interlitq.]

Many poets with prestigious awards have served as Poet Laureate for the United States, as has Billy Collins, so you might wonder what makes him so special. For one thing, people who don’t normally read poems buy his poetry books, contributing to his status as the most beloved living poet in North America.

Down-to-earth or up in the clouds, Collins has a way of studying ordinary subjects most of us can relate to and then addressing them in an extraordinary, often amusing way. For example, in his “first real book of poems” (since reissued) The Apple That Astonished Paris begins with “Vanishing Point” – a subject artists are compelled to study to get the perspective right:

You thought it was just a pencil dot
art students made in the middle of the canvas
before they started painting the barn, cows, haystack,

or just a point where railroad tracks fuse,
a spot engineers stare at from the cabs of trains
as they clack through the heat of prairies
heading out of the dimensional.

Then, in a unique turn-about, that’s like a signature, the poet continues:

But here I am at the vanishing point,
looking back at everything as it zooms toward me….”

Speaking of perspective, Collins even addresses the viewpoint of sea creatures in “Walking Across The Atlantic.”

…for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.”

Another quirky viewpoint In “Flames” tells us how…

Smoky the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.”

Reportedly, Smoky has had it!

“He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.”

Later in the book, the poet gives professional “Advice to Writers.”

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.”

The poem goes on to recommend “cleaning” with the assurance that “The more you clean, the more brilliant/ your writing will be….” But, after this encouragement to polish poems or other writings, the poet ends with this suggestion:

…cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.”

In the book, Questions About Angels, the title poem turns its attention to one often asked:

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.”

Those opening lines give an excellent example of how Collins takes the ordinary, the familiar into another realm as the “I” of the poem asks:

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

Another poem in the book contemplates investigating “A History of Weather.”

The snow flurries of Victorian London will be surveyed
along with the gales that blew off  Renaissance caps.
The tornadoes of the Middle Ages will be explicated
and the long, overcast days of the Dark Ages.
There will be a section on the frozen nights of antiquity
and on the heat that shimmered in the deserts of the Bible.”

In a more down-to-earth tone, Collins begins the book The Art of Drowning with a note to the “Dear Reader.”

…you could be the man I held the door for
this morning at the bank or post office
or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street
or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.”

Whether those last few words show someone about to mow down the poet is not for me to say, but, like many others, the title poem  for that book weaves dark threads lightly through its lines.

I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.”

Instead of that last flash, the “I” of the poem recommends:

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model paragraph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?

For some, those questions might be rhetorical, but Professor Collins apparently gives such matters important consideration worthy of being dignified with answers, albeit odd.

In “The End of the World,” for instance:

It is a subject so profound I feel I should
be underwater to think about it properly.”

The poem continues:

But here in the calm latitudes of this room
I am thinking that the end could be less operatic.
Maybe a black tarpaulin, a kind of boat cover,
could be lowered over the universe one night.
A hand could enter the picture and crumple the cosmos
into a ball of paper and hook it into a waste basket.

Clearly, Billy Collins compels us to think about things we might not otherwise consider. For example, in the book Picnic, Lightning, the poem “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’” asks why the farmer’s wife wanted to cut off their tails with a carving knife.

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sisters….”


…how, in their tiny darkness,
could they possibly have run after a farmer’s wife
or anyone else’s wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.”

With Collins’ poems in hand, one begins to see how much we take for granted – how many times we don’t bother to look closer or beyond the obvious. Such probing can be delicious too, as “Japan” reveals:

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

As poets and writers, we do well to devour bushels of poetry, yet taking time to really taste each poem. And we do well, too, to read Collins’ book, TheTrouble with Poetry, discussed, of course, in poems.

Again the poet invites us into his world by acknowledging “You, Reader.”

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.”

Those few beginning lines express how I feel, reading Collins’ work: Oh, I could have written that! But I didn’t. He did. He took the time and energy to take everyday thoughts and phrases to a new level. Or, maybe he can’t help himself!

As the title poem, “The Trouble with Poetry,” expresses it:

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry.”

And that’s another reason the work of Billy Collins makes us better. It makes us want to read poetry again. It makes us want to write.

Then, reading “Quandary” from Collins’ book Aimless Love, I wonder, too, if poetry makes us better because we use the pen, rather than the sword, to extinguish our enemies. To begin:

I was a little disappointed
in the apple I lifted from a bowl of fruit
and bit into on the way out the door,
fuzzy on the inside and lacking the snap of the ripe.”

After considering “all the people/ who would be grateful to have this apple,” the poet finishes with this quick toss of a phrase:

Then I took a second bite, a big one,
and pitched what was left
over the tall hedges hoping to hit on the head
a murderer or one of the filthy rich out for a stroll.

The book The Rain in Portugal shows a softer, sensitive side, however, as  “The Bard in Flight” occupies the adjacent seat on a flight from London – presumably Shakespeare’s first plane ride filled with the awe of ice cubes until the sudden turbulence results in…

…the frenzied eyes of the nervous passengers,
and the Bard reaching for my hand
as we roared with trembling wings
into the towering fortress of a thunderhead.

As one of the poets most likely responsible for the shaping of the English language as we know it, Shakespeare might have been more dismayed by the “Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language.” If you’ve ever tried reading poetry in Middle English, these lines will mean even more to you.

I’m not going to put a lot of work into this
because you won’t be able to read it anyway,
and I’ve got more important things to do
this morning, not the least of which
is to try to write a fairly decent poem
for the people who can still read English.”

The decent poem continues, lamenting “English finding/ a place in the cemetery of dead languages,” and what a loss that would be. And,

So I’m going to turn the page
and not think about you and your impoverishment.
Instead, I’m going to write a poem about red poppies
waving by the side of the railroad tracks,
and you people will never even know what you’re missing.

That last line expresses my sentiments for those who have not yet read at least one book of Billy Collins’ poems.

Reviewer Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually, she placed three dozen books in all genres including books of poems and how-to’s on poetry and writing. She continues to maintain the Poetry Editor blog and provide resources for poets and writers. Cyberwit.com has just published her newest poetry book, Talking to the Wren: Haiku, Short Verse, and One Long Poem.


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