The Craft of Billy Collins

zodiac coinThe Book Club for Poets decided once again to discuss a book by the latest Hall-Kenyon Prize winner, and the poet selected for the 2013 award was Billy Collins, who gave a reading at the Concord (NH) City Auditorium on October 3, 2013; the audience was large and enthusiastic, applauding after every poem. Several national figures have praised Collins’s work. But when I told poet friends that we’d be discussing Collins’s Horoscopes for the Dead at our next meeting, I got mixed reactions, including a “I won’t be going to that one” and a simple but fairly hostile “Why?”

Why does Collins inspire such polarized views among other poets? That was the question I decided could be our way into Horoscopes for the Dead. What are the strengths of this poetry? What are its weaknesses? If Collins wasn’t such a wildly successful poet financially, such a popular writer, would he instill the same kind of reaction?

His work is admired by accomplished writers. In choosing Collins for the Hall-Kenyon Prize, poet Wesley McNair told the Concord (NH) Monitor, “He’s intelligent, wonderfully witty and urbane, just as the critics say. But the Billy Collins who engages me most is the naif — the poet of the curious imagination, who shows us that the world is a source of delight and mystery, and the only reason we haven’t seen this is that we’ve been standing in the light.” Stephen Dunn admires how “we seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going.” Dunn says, “I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn’t hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered” (Academy of American Poets). In a review of Picnic, Lightning in Poetry, John Taylor notes, “By forming these odd but somehow convincing associations, Collins helps us feel the mystery of being alive. Beneath his tongue-in-cheek humor, a deeper melancholy reminds us that a human being can hope for little more than emotional, mental, and physical experiences of this mystery.”

But not everyone admires Collins’s craft. Paul Stephens has noted in the Drunken Boat,  “The dominant impression one gets when reading a Collins poem is one of sheer lack of ambition. … There is nothing engaging whatsoever about the construction of [“The Lesson”]. The prosaic domestic setting is typical of a Collins poem. There is in fact no specific ‘History’ to speak of. ‘History’ becomes a sort of non-threatening daydream of some past life where things might actually have been interesting.”

This last comment comes closest to that of those poet friends of mine who declined to be part of our discussion of Horoscopes. The work, they said, was glib, overly sentimental, not ambitious, not well crafted.

So the Book Club asked ourselves what we liked in Collins’s work—and what we found disappointing.

In Collins’s favor, the club noted his humor, his willingness to be whimsical, his willingness to risk sentimentality — and the strategies he uses to undercut it. Critics sometimes object to Collins’s “pandering” to the audience in his performances, but Don Kimball noted that without the humor of “The Lanyard,” the poem would be unbearably maudlin. The poem also gets more serious at the end, a technique the poet uses frequently.

One of the things I personally respond to best in Collins’s work are the moments when he shifts dramatically, in tone, in time and space, or in point of view. In a poem like “Horoscopes for the Dead,” for example, most of the poem mines the humor of prosaic newspaper horoscope-speak and its inappropriateness for the dead:

Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals,
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.

The prosiness is intensified, I think, by the neatly self-contained stanzas. Occasionally, the language is elevated by more music (listen for the long i sounds, the s’s, and the l’s below) and by image and metaphor:

… that would apply
more to all the Pisces who are still alive,
still swimming up and down the stream of life
or suspended in a pool in the shade of an overhanging tree.

Collins reserves the ending for his most dramatic shift. Compared to the narrator, who is “pedaling along the shore road by the bay,” the dead “you” of the poem is both stationary and moving, flying, beyond the dimensions of this world:

And you stay just as you are,
lying there in your beautiful blue suit,
your hands crossed on your chest
like the wings of a bird who has flown
in its strange migration not north or south
but straight up from the earth
and pierced the enormous circle of the zodiac.

In a poem like “Good News,” however, the Book Club thought the whimsy and sentimentality were not balanced by something sharper or more ominous. The dog’s “long smile” is such a satisfying image in the penultimate stanza, but the final lines seem unremittingly sweet and discursive: “and your brown and white coat / are perfectly designed to be the dog you perfectly are.” In contrast, in “Two Creatures,” the narrator is willing to risk the sweetness of contemplating a pet dog’s point of view but ends somewhere much more interesting: “I have never once worried,” the narrator says at the conclusion of the poem,

that she would take off in the car
and leave me to die
behind the locked doors of this house.

Such a shift, it seems to me, invites us to ask questions about our relationships to the creatures we have under our care. What’s the hidden cruelty, or at least the hidden callousness, in such a relationship?

Other poems from this collection that take similar leaps or shifts are “My Unborn Children,” “Roses,” and “Thieves,” which moves from the narrator’s human point of view to that of the mouse he sees “ducking  … into stone wall.” The ending also illustrates Collins’s sly allusions, the language of the first line of this stanza recalling Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse”:

my wee, timorous mind darting in after him,
escaping the hawk-prowling sunlight
for a shadowy cave of stone
and the comings and goings of mice —
all that scurrying and the secretive brushings of whiskers.

This movement to the inward and the small is intensified by the narrator’s just having imagined “the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age.” (The final image reminds me a bit of the sudden intimacy of the bee in the foxglove in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Moose.”)

At his best, Collins writes a musical line:

all that scurrying and the secretive brushing of whiskers (“Thieves”)
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish (“Table Talk”)
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills (“Table Talk”)

At other times, he doesn’t seem as interested in loading the rifts with ore:

“It’s the size of a basketball / but much more interesting” (“The New Globe”)
“the drawings you would bring in” (“Girl”)

In the poems the Book Club enjoyed most from Horoscopes from the Dead, Collins’s narrator is saying, in the conversational way he has, something complicated, as in the series of inner landscapes, private worlds, compressed “to the size of a bedroom,” for instance, in “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne” — the world of the lovers in Donne’s poem “contracted” a second time, as the narrator memorizes it, “into a little spot within” the narrator himself. At other times, the poems express deep ambivalence, as in the dead father’s silence in “Grave,” which is described so delicately but that seems withdrawn, withholding, perhaps punitive. In comparison, a poem like “On Reading a Program Note on Aaron Copland” is clever—the famous composer traveling only from Brooklyn to North Tarrytown over his ninety-year life span — but never really goes beyond cleverness. The world of the poem seems completely imagined, self-contained within its own whimsy. But the poem on the facing page, “After I Heard You Were Gone,” has both a clever extended metaphor but much more emotionally at stake, the world transformed, made surreal, by the “you’s” absence:

I could have sworn the large oak trees
had just appeared there overnight.
And that pigeon looked as if
it had once been a playing card
that a magician had transformed with the flick of a scarf.

Sources

Poems quoted from Collins, Billy. Horoscopes for the Dead. New York: Random House, 2012.

Dunn, Stephen. Quoted in “Billy Collins.” Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/278.

McNair, Wesley. Quoted in “Poet Billy Collins Selected for Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize.” Concord (NH) Monitor, April 29, 2013, http://www.concordmonitor.com/home/5932297-95/poet-billy-collins-selected-for-donald-hall-jane-kenyon-prize.

Taylor John. “Picnic, Lightning / The Art of Drowning.” Poetry 175, no. 4 (Feb. 2000): 273. ProQuest.

Stephens, Paul. “An Apology for Poetry, or Why Bother with Billy Collins?” Drunken Boat 4 (Spring 2002), http://www.drunkenboat.com/db4/stephens/apology.html.

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4 thoughts on “The Craft of Billy Collins

  1. Interesting, as always Martha. I have ambivalence when it comes to Collins. So I am interested in what you have to say. I disagree with Dunn, though I love him and always pay very close attention to what he has to say. I do think we always know where we are in a Collins poem. Yet it is not so much that we need to know where we are going, but one wants to know if WE are going, or is it just Collins going. For me, I just get tired of his imagination and humor. Don’t get me wrong, there are some deadly pieces that work only with humor and his imaginative leaps. I love those, and even use them with my students. Also, I admire his skill. I agree with you that he is such a good craftsman. But reading a book of his work leaves me restless. I always feel I have been listening to someone talk about themselves too long. The poems become about Collins, not about the human experience. In the end, I think I am looking for “the news” ,as they say. And the news in Collin’s work seems to be his own. Brilliant, but his own. S

    • We finally concluded that his work is inconsistent, in terms of reaching the reader, in terms also of craft. I appreciate his whimsy and humor, partly because I think so few people really do this kind of thing; but the more ambitious poems of his are the ones I respond to most. A friend of mine says that she enjoys reading Collins, but he’s not a poet she returns to.

  2. As a relative newcomer to the work of Billy Collins, I really enjoy reading his work, it is engaging and companionable and I don’t feel the necessity to read between the lines or search for other meaning.

    Having just read his latest collection of collections Aimless Love, I realise how prolific he is which in itself is reason for there to be much divergence of opinion. I was happy to be able to be introduce him to readers from New Zealand for example who had never heard of him and who I know will find delight in discovering his work for the very first time.

    A wonderful and comprehensive post, thank you.

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