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: Continue reading “The art of Billy Collins”

A New York minute with Billy Collins


The Singapore River isn't the Hudson
But it has a homely charm of its own,
The Botanic Gardens no Central Park
But a tranquil, sylvan landmark
Well worth a visit or two.
Life in Singapore is nothing to rue
Unless you make much ado
About the Straits Times
Being no New York Times.
Then you're in the wrong time zone.

Yes, there's a 12-hour difference between Singapore time and Eastern Standard Time. Midnight in Singapore is midday in New York.

But you don't have to be in New York to appreciate the poems of Billy Collins. Though this one is called Eastern Standard Time, and specifically addressed to people in his time zone, you appreciate the humour and homely details even if, like me, you are on Singapore time.

 Eastern Standard Time
By Billy Collins

Poetry speaks to all people, it is said,
but here I would like to address
only those in my own time zone,
this proper slice of longitude
that runs from pole to snowy pole,
down the globe from Montreal to Bogota

Oh, fellow inhabitants of this singular band,
sitting up in your many beds this morning —
the sun falling through the windows
and casting a shadow on the sundial —
consider those in other timezones who cannot hear these words,

They are not slipping into a bathrobe as we are,
or following the smell of coffee in a timely fashion.

Rather, they are at work already,
leaning on copy machines,
hammering nails into a house-frame.

They are not swallowing a vitamin like us,
rather they are smoking a cigarette under a half-moon,
even jumping around on a dance floor,
or just now sliding under the covers,
pulling down the little chains on their bed lamps.

Continue reading “A New York minute with Billy Collins”

Billy Collins’ witty Obituaries

Perhaps the best known poem on old age written in the last 50 years is Philip Larkin’s The Old Fools, which appeared in High Windows, published in 1973. It rails against old age, beginning with the verse:

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? …

But what Larkin is describing is extreme old age. There is an earlier phase euphemistically described as the “golden years”. When we know our days are numbered and begin to lose our friends and peers. Billy Collins begins by describing this phase in his poem, Obituaries. It is very different in tone from The Old Fools. While Larkin rails against age and its infirmities, Collins takes refuge in humour and fantasy. Starting with a playful reference to Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium, Collins ends with passengers aboard Noah’s ark. But in his account the passengers are not

“ the couples of the animal kingdom,
but rather pairs of men and women,
ascending the gangplank two by two…
all saved at last from the awful flood of life.”

Yep, they are the departed, shuffling off this mortal coil on their way to the world beyond.

Imagine that – death as a  voyage on Noah’s ark! Only a poet could have done it, I guess, a very witty poet.

By Billy Collins

These are no pages for the young,
who are better off in one another’s arms,

nor for those who just need to know
about the price of gold,
or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys.

But eventually you may join
the crowd who turn here first to see
who has fallen in the night,
who has left a shape of air walking in their place.

Here is where the final cards are shown,
the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,
and sometimes an odd scrap of news —
that she collected sugar bowls,
that he played solitaire without any clothes.

Continue reading “Billy Collins’ witty Obituaries”

Billy Collins on his old typewriter

Billy_Collins-copy I am reading the poems of Billy Collins for the first time. And what can I say? Imagine Keats living into middle age, developing a dry wit and writing poems about domestic life without rhymes – but still showing flashes of his youthful romanticism. That’s Billy Collins.

Collins, who was the US Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, teaches English at Lehman College, New York. Maybe that explains the literary turn of some of his poems such as Birthday, where he writes about reading Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Clarissa, and The Literary Life, where he writes about the 19th century English poet Coventry Patmore.

But one doesn’t have to know Richardson and Patmore – neither of whom have I read – to appreciate Collins.

He can be enjoyed on his own for the loving detail with which he writes about home life. The imagery is so vivid. He can also tease, write in riddles and weave a spell. Some of his poems are so hypnotic and incantatory they are simply crying to be read aloud. Read the poem, Litany.  Also read the poem Birthday, where he meditates on age and time as he begins reading the novel, Clarissa, which runs to more than 1,000 pages,

But first let’s read his poem about his old typewriter, a Royal Aristocrat. Now that’s an old contraption you may have never heard of, never having had to use a typewriter in your life. But if you have ever had to sit down and write anything, and enjoyed doing it, this is a poem you will appreciate. I think this poem will be appreciated by bloggers especially typing away at their computers. Read to the last verse please. That’s as romantic as anything written by Keats or Dylan Thomas.

Royal Aristocrat
By Billy Collins

My old typewriter used to make so much noise
I had to put a cushion of newspaper
beneath it late at night
so as not to wake the whole house.

Even if I closed the study door
and typed a few words at a time —
the best way to work anyway —
the clatter of keys was still so loud

That the grey and yellow bird
would wince in its cage.
Some nights I could even see the moon
frowning down through the winter trees.

Continue reading “Billy Collins on his old typewriter”