The art of Billy Collins

Billy Collins, who turned 72 yesterday (March 22), was once called the most popular poet in America by the New York Times. I love some of his poems that speak to me like a friend, telling stories in intimate, picturesque detail; I listen, completely spellbound, unable to interrupt, and the words linger in my mind long after the conversation is over.

He describes books, beaches, houses, the last cigarette he had, incidents from childhood, memory slipping away, in a quiet, intimate voice that makes a deep impression on you. He can be witty, but you are drawn to him because he sounds so personal, so intimate, as he mixes memories with ruminations – and, always, there is the beauty of his word pictures, so vivid, so memorable.

That’s the only way I can describe his poems, by the effect they have on me; I can’t dissect them, analyze them, evaluate them like a literary critic. Nor, do I think, does he want me to. A professor of English, this is how he described that particular attempt at understanding poetry in this poem:

Introduction to Poetry

By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour 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 out it means.

That’s not how he wants his poems to be read.

He says so again in an interview published last month in U-T San Diego.

Q: In this year 2013, why does poetry still matter?

A: Might as well start with the big one, eh? Knock me over right from the start? Like any art form, it doesn’t really have to matter to everybody. Very few things do. But poetry is incontestably the only history we have of human emotion. It’s the history of the human heart.

I think one reason why people turn to poetry in times of crisis, like post 9/11, or why they turn to poetry in moments of high occasion, like a wedding or a funeral, is that a poem often tends to connect them to the history of emotion.

He describes his art:

I try to let the reader into the poem in the first few lines. I don’t want the whole poem to be as accessible as the beginning is. I think of accessibility as what in chess you would call a gambit. It’s an opening strategy so the reader can step easily into the poem and find him or herself on sort of familiar ground. As the poem continues, I want the ground under the reader to destabilize to a certain degree as we move into a little vaguer territory.

Q: I wanted to ask you about something else that a critic has said about your work, that your poetry “helps us feel the mystery of being alive.” Is that part of what you’re trying to accomplish?

A: I don’t want to sound too unintentional about all this. I do sort of try to write one poem at a time. But I try to make the poem a kind of present experience for the reader. I don’t want the poem to sound like a recollection of something that happened a long time ago that I just wound up writing about.

I think many of the poems have expressed this theme of a gratitude about being alive that is the result of paying attention. Often a poem will begin with a very clear observation of something in nature. Right now, I’m looking at the garbage man picking up the garbage and throwing it into the truck and there he is. You know, if you notice what’s going on around you intently, that should lead to appreciation of the fact that you are actually here, that you’re actually here to experience it. One of the deepest themes of poetry, and I’m echoing it, is just a gratitude for having experience. For being an experiencer.

That’s what makes him special. He makes you see and feel what he has been through. He makes you feel alive, describing things and emotions in phrases and images that are richer than our own.

PS: Here is another of his poems.

The Best Cigarette
By Billy Collins

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

Now read Birthday, Forgetfulness and Fool Me Good, all by him.


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