Billy Collins

7 posts

A Few Words from St. Billy of Collins

The book Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process offers some poetic illumination in a Billy Collins essay included in that collection. In it Collins references an earlier essay he wrote called “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader.”

First, Collins speaks to why he finds W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” so inspiring. He teaches it, for one, and after many years of doing so, decided to commit it to memory (one of the “pleasures” of poetry).

Next he shares an anecdote I could relate to–one involving an MRI (I had my first a few years back and yes, got a poem out of it). Collins said it was “like being buried alive in a very high-tech coffin.” With the help of Yeats, Collins survived his half hour of hell by reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” over and over and over again.

Ah, the medicinal uses of poetry!

From here, Collins gives a little history of poetry before the written word, how its rhyme and meter helped the shamans commit to memory, kind of like how people commit songs to memory today with little effort and through the help of repetition (thank you, radio stations and/or mp3s or whatever people are constantly streaming out of Pandora’s box these days).

Collins claims he seeks the same rhythms in his own free verse, making it a bit less free, maybe. He explains:

It’s hard to describe, though you know it when you feel it. For me, it’s often about gracefulness. I want graceful lines and graceful sentences. I try to write very simply. The vocabulary is simple, the sentences tend to be quite conventional—subject, verb, object. I try to be very unchallenging in syntax. I want the trip to be one of imagination and not completely of the language. But I’m also thinking about the reader, whom I’m trying to guide through an imaginative experience. I want the excitement of the poem—if I can generate some—not to lie in a fancy use of language, or an eccentric use of language. I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.

One thing I think we all can agree upon is that some modern-day poetry has lost its way. It is reassuring, therefore, to hear Collins agree. Go get ’em, Billy!:

Poetry’s kind of a mixture of the clear and the mysterious. It’s very important to know when to be which: what to be clear about and what to leave mysterious. A lot of poetry I find unreadable is trying to be mysterious all the time. It’s not so much a mixture of clarity and mystery, instead of a balance between the two. If the reader doesn’t feel oriented in the beginning of the poem, he or she can’t be disoriented later. Often, the first lines of a poem—many times, I find them completely disorienting. But I’d like to go to that place, but I like to be taken there rather than than being shoved into it. It’s like being pushed off the title into the path of an approaching train.

I know from past sermons that Collins believes you should start your books with your strongest poems. It’s advice I’ve tried to take in my own books, only I sometimes worry when my readers point out anything BUT my lead-off batter as their favorites.

That’s how subjective poetry can be. It’s scary, yes, but reassuring, too. Think of it: MANY of your poems, no matter what their seeding in the brackets of your book, can serve as the best and the brightest up front. At least if your readers are to be believed (and who else would you believe more, I ask rhetorically?).

My favorite passage in Collins’ essay speaks to poetry’s “diminished public stature.” Here’s the relevant Collins:

And yet I think poetry is as important today as it’s ever been, despite its diminished public stature. Its uses become obvious when you read it. Poetry privileges subjectivity. It foregrounds the interior life of the writer, who is trying to draw in a reader. And it gets readers into contact with their own subjective life. This is valuable, especially now. If you look around at the society we live in, we’re being pulled constantly into public life. It’s not just Facebook, which is sort of the willing forfeiture of one’s own privacy. The sanctuaries of privacy are so scarce these days. Every banality, from “I’m going out for pizza,” to “JoAnn is passed out on the sofa,” is broadcast to the wide world. I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance. Well, poetry becomes an oasis or sanctuary from the forces constantly drawing us into social and public life.

I like that. The gratuitous dis of on-line behavior, especially. “We’re not suffering from an overflow of information–we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance.”

So why would so many “readers” become addicted to THAT while turning up their noses to poetry? Perhaps we should assign them “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” as a cure? Perhaps they need a “bee-loud glade” or two to realign their perspectives?

I think so. Turning off social networks will slow things down, and that’s the first thing “readers” need to do to appreciate poetry. Slow down. Reread. Luxuriate in language and swim in its sounds to reacquaint yourself with peace, “for peace comes dropping slow….”



Poets: Damn Quirky Readers


When it comes to reading poetry, I admit to a few quirky habits. Let’s start with reading a collection. I’ll use as an example Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a book I picked up because it had won some awards (the Gratitude Awards or something).

First, the ritual I go through before I read a book of poetry. I count the number of poems in the table of contents. Here it is a nimble 24. Doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a full book of poetry (this is not a chapbook), but once you enter, the mystery is solved. Gay mostly writes long, strung-out single-stanza poems, often with lines that consist of 2-6 words. Note to self: Want to stretch a chapbook into a full collection, Gumby-style? Gay shows the way!

But back to the rituals. Acknowledgments. My second stop. The poet in me wants to know where these poems have seen the light of published day. Often, it’s a depressing exercise as I see a litany of top-drawer publications–the stuff of most poets’ rejections files. But in Gay’s case, it’s a motley– and to my mind, somewhat inspiring– set of obscure and maybe doable journals: Solstice, Gabby, Exit 7, Nashville Review, Bombay Gin, Oversound, etc. Hard as I listen (ear to the ground), however, I’ve never heard of them. Any of them, which makes me wonder how many are still in business? Poetry journals, like fruit flies, are fleeting things. Cover your glasses of grape juice, people.

Third ritual, I start reading the poems with a small notebook nearby.  I write down cool phrases from the poems as I read. I know from teaching that you never stop getting better and–news flash–there is no such thing as a “master teacher,” no matter how many years you teach.

Ditto with poetry writing. and “master poets.” You are an apprentice forever. The Sisyphus of Stanzas. Always pushing the rock. Always learning. If you want to be funny about it, you can recall T.S. Eliot’s line: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” as you read. Or how about the more contemporary Billy Collins lines from “The Trouble with Poetry”:


And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters…


By way of example of lines you might find in my notebook, here are a few I jotted down from Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude:


“pulling me down into the oldest countries of my body”

“mostly he disappeared into the minor yawns of the earth”

“purple skin like cathedrals of glass”

“filling the sky in my chest”

“cat’s shimmy through the grin of the fence”

“his tongue drowsed slack as a creek”

“In that gaudy, cement-mixer Leavettown accent that sends lemurs scaling my rib cage to see”


Eliot and Collins aside, the idea is to collect examples of how poets create new ways of saying old truths, to catch the unexpected word pairings that glow like newly-captured fireflies in a jar (I recommend catch-and-release).

Back to rituals. If we can shift gears, I also have habits when reading poetry journals. Specifically the senior among poetry journals called (of all things) Poetry. They have a wonderful habit of printing brief bios of contributing poets in the back. If it’s a first-time appearance in their august journal (even if it’s July), they place an asterisk near the poet’s name.

My quirky habit? I’m a bad boy. If I read a poem and think to myself, “This? THIS was accepted by the most august (even if it’s July) poetry journal in the land? It MUST be a much-published and well-known poet cruising on his or her laurels (outfitted with wheels)!”

Sure enough, I am 90% accurate when I go back and find no asterisk but plenty of previously-published works near the poet’s name. The poems I often like best? Often they are starred. Asterisked as new blood. Earning their way into the august heat via hard work and ingenuity with the pen (or keyboard, Brave New World-style).

It gives one hope, something every poet, new and old, carries in his satchel like Perseus’s mirror. The Medusas of Rejection are many, after all.

Is Poetry Dead or Just Playing Possum?

Ask any librarian or bookstore owner. The aisle (or Dewey Decimal number) less traveled by is poetry.

Why is that? You would think that readers would love to read all types of books alike — fiction, essays, history, drama, memoir, and poetry.

That’s how it starts, anyway. After all, little kids love poetry. They’re nurtured on Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, children’s song lyrics, Dr. Seuss’s word play. But by the time they reach middle school, the love is all but gone. What happens? 

There’s no lack of theories. Some lay the blame at English teachers’ feet. As Billy Collins once wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…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 it really means.

By this theory’s logic, teachers “ruin” poems, either by selecting inscrutable works or by making it work instead of fun to read. Thus we have teachers as keepers of the keys to meanings, while kids are left to play a dreary guessing game.

“Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” victims of this game might say. “Why aren’t kids intrigued by a poem’s unique slant on old truths?” an admirer of poetry might respond.

Matt Zapruder, poet and professor, has an idea. He thinks readers — including young people — need only one tool to fully understand poetry: a dictionary. Yes, online is fine. And no, not just to look up words they don’t know. Words they know, too. Especially common words with multiple meanings because, in poetry, words work in mysterious — dare I say “often very cool” — ways. Sometimes definition #8 works better than definition #1.

When a reader of poetry is intrigued like a detective who wants to solve a mystery or advocate for a particular meaning, it’s a new ball game. Poetry isn’t being “done to them.” They are “doing poetry.” The whole scenario is flipped. Both control and motivation is given to the reader.

Couple this with the appropriate selection of poems for each age group, and the situation shifts. Ditto adults. Every topic is fair game in poetry these days, and there’s a voice that will resonate with readers of every taste — if given the chance, of course. If readers who “left” poetry are willing to jump back in. And if they’re willing to mix it up and appreciate that reading poetry offers rewards both similar to and different from prose.

Next newsletter: How reading poetry is different from reading prose, and how it benefits the brain the way aerobic and anaerobic activities complement each other in exercising the body.



The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is that rare book that handles both plot and characterization well. Diving into the publishing world, it tells the story of a writer/teacher who takes a student writer’s idea and runs with it. When it becomes a bestseller, he starts to get mysterious messages accusing him of plagiarism. It’s a quiet psychological thriller that Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock would fancy. Book lovers will, too.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Green, the heralded YA author of such books as Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, takes a different turn with these mini-essays based on a podcast he does with brother Henry. Fans of trivia — and, let’s be honest, knowledge — will savor his quick forays into such disparate and odd topics as Halley’s Comet, Lascaux Cave Paintings, Piggly Wiggly stores, The Yips,” “Auld Lang Syne,” etc.) or, because of his expository efforts, became somewhat the QWERTY Keyboard, and the film Penguins of Madagascar. Like those rare teachers we remember best from school — both fun and entertaining — the book satisfies in 3-5 page morsels. Tasty!

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Fans of narrative poetry that not only embraces the present moment but the history of Black experience in America will appreciate Murillo’s conversational free verse that recounts various episodes from his life and others in his circle of friends and family. The highlight of the book is a strong set of sonnets (Petrarch and Shakespeare need not apply) in the center of the book, each 14-liner going to the heart of America’s social woes from different angles. Thought-provoking stuff!


Coronavirus-Resistant Poetry


I woke up this morning to discover that the National Basketball Association has suspended its season and that Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hanks are infected by Covid-19. That plus Europe going into a Trump travel-ban bottle starting tomorrow. All this while I am reading the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. It’s about life after a flu that wipes out 99% of the earth. Picking it up was either perfect or imperfect timing. I’m not sure yet.

Look. We’ve had scares before. Scares with letters and words like Ebola, SARS, avian flu, etc. But this time, like a very distant last time (some 102 years ago with the so-called Spanish Flu), it’s for real, no matter what the conspiracy theorists or Fox News crazies tell you. This time it seems we’re experiencing an actual innocence lost or, as Hamlet would have it, getting to know our mortal coils more intimately.

We are also experiencing, depending where we live, governmental competence or incompetence. From the Hanks article, I learned that Australia is a very good place to be during this crisis because, unlike the US of A, it took the coronavirus seriously from the start. For Hanks and wife, who happened to be in Australia, testing was available quickly and logically, as it is for all of that country’s citizens. Everyone knows where to go. Everyone knows what to do. And health care concerns are of no concern thanks to Oz’s national health coverage.

South Korea, too, seems to be turning a corner with its quick and efficient testing (even via drive-through set-ups!), whereas confusion seems to be the law of the land in America, which still doesn’t have enough tests out there to get any handle on how many citizens actually have the disease.

Yesterday we were singing Songs of Innocence, and today Songs of Experience. That’s right. In Blake-wise fashion, The Poison Tree is now shading our mental landscapes. So while we’re hunkered down in our own homes, no longer traveling, and no longer hugging or shaking hands with anyone, let’s go down memory lane and remember what we took for granted only a few weeks ago: days when we could joke about mortality by writing a light and humorous poem on life expectancy.

There’s no better man for that fading memory than St. Billy of Collins, of course. Here, during the disorder of our newfound days, is his poem “The Order of the Day.” I hope it brings you both cheer and nostalgia for the fading concepts of comfort and order!


The Order of the Day
Billy Collins

A morning after a week of rain
and the sun shot down through the branches
into the tall, bare windows.

The brindled cat rolled over on his back,
and I could hear you in the kitchen
grinding coffee beans into a powder.

Everything seemed especially vivid
because I knew we were all going to die,
first the cat, then you, then me,

then somewhat later the liquefied sun
was the order I was envisioning.
But then again, you never really know.

The cat had a fiercely healthy look,
his coat so bristling and electric
I wondered what you had been feeding him

and what you had been feeding me
as I turned a corner
and beheld you out there on the sunny deck

lost in exercise, running in place,
knees lifted high, skin glistening—
and that toothy, immortal-looking smile of yours.

What Lights YOUR Muse’s Campfire?

It’s a fact of life: Famous writers inspire famous writers. Don’t believe it? Doubting your inner Thomas? You need only read Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler, wherein dozens of writerly-types share snippets of works that lit their muse’s campfire. Curious, I read the book–mostly–and here are a few for you:

  • Aimee Bender chooses Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” particularly the line “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
  • Sherman Alexie chooses a poem, too–one by the Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” Alexie takes a shining to the line, “O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind” because the metaphor gives him license to be an Indian and write like an Indian, which he has done with great success.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert waxes poetic for her namesake (unrelated), Jack Gilbert, who I have written about on this blog before (I took him on an Amtrak ride last spring and wrote a poem about the experience, too, which landed in my new book). Gilbert comma Eliza swoons to Gilbert comma Jack’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” particularly the lines “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness on the ruthless / furnace of this world.” That Jack. He comes out metaphors a blazing, doesn’t he?
  • Amy Tan makes a more predictable choice: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
  • Junot Diaz taps Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. He especially loves this: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
  • Andre Dubus III tips his hat to Richard Bausch’s “Dear Writer.” In it, Bausch writes, “Do not think, dream.” That advice is for first drafts, by the way. After that, Logic, who has been pounding on the door, can be let in. See Dubus’s essay for particulars.
  • Billy Collins selects W. B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I will give that choice and Billy’s reasons its own post tomorrow. I love talking with BC.
  • Kathryn Harrison gives a shout-out to Joseph Brodsky. She cites the poem “On Love” and the lines “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” If you like mysteries in the dark, you’ll take a shining to her essay.
  • David Mitchell? The talented novelist chooses a poem (God bless him, everyone!) by James Wright– perhaps Wright’s most famous: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” It’s the equally famous finish he cites: “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” Those last five words serve as a warning not only to Mitchell, but to all of us wasting time with stuff like “writer’s block” and other malware of the mind. Just do it! (That’s Nike for the sport of writing.)
  • Curiously, Tom Perrotta is inspired by Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play. “At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” The play moves Perrotta to tears to this day. And here I still have to read the thing!
  • Jonathan Lethem likes his Kafka, especially the short piece “Leopards in the Temple.” He notes the quote, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the  sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” Let the leopards in, Lethem says. Spot on, I’d add.
  • Charles Simic is the second writer to point to Whitman. But it is a less well-known Whitman: the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The line noted here is “Young man I think I know you–I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Simic’s own wartime experiences as a boy in the Balkans creates the camaraderie with Whitman’s poem.
  • Emma Donoghue is one of two in the book who point to Emily Dickinson, the pride of Amherst, Mass. It’s the poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights”: “Rowing in Eden– / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor–Tonight– / In thee!”
  • Claire Messed resurrects an old favorite seldom read nowadays, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “These fragments! I have shored against my ruins.” It’s an admittedly cool line, for those of us with both shores and ruins.
  • T.C. Boyle acknowledges Raymond Carver (also written about on these pages this past year). He loves the ending of the short story, “Cathedral,” specifically the lines “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.” In that scene, the narrator has his eyes shut, trying to reimagine life from a blind man’s dark point of view. You can see how that might connect to the writing life, no? Carver is the man.

Anyway, that’s a a sampling. In each essay, the author explains why the lines noted inspire, why they “light the dark,” so to speak, and feed their muse’s inner fires.

You can play the game, too, of course. It’s a popular pastime for writers to keep a quote posted to the wall above in their favorite writing spot, after all. For me, it’s Wislawa Szymborka’s poem, “The Joy of Writing.”

And you?

Eye Candy for Revisionists


Revisionist. It’s an ugly word in history and politics, but in the world of poetry? Nirvana! Frankly, I much prefer revising my poems to creating them. Birth from the white womb of blankness, page or screen, can be painful. Tinkering with existing words, lines, even punctuation? Another matter entirely.

Of course, revising must be earned. You can’t revise nothing because, in the words of the prophet, Billy Preston, nothing from nothing leaves nothing. (This is math I can understand!)

If you missed it, I have to share with you a New York Times feature on poets’ revisionary tactics. It was, as the phrase has been sweetly coined, “eye candy” for poets. You look at typed poems and witness glorious cross-outs, arrows, and scribbles. In short, a creative history of brains at work.

In this case, the brains are Eduardo C. Corral, Billy Collins, Jenny Zhang, Marie Howe, Robert Pinsky, and Mary Jo Bang. Which reminds me. Why can’t I have a catchy name like Mary Jo Bang? Holy cow. Where do people get such catchy names? I’ve no idea if it is real or a nom de plume, but either way, I like the sound of it.

You can check out this New York Times feature, called “Poets in Action,” here. Not only do you get to see who’s messiest, you get to read a bit of commentary by each poet below the manuscript. Not that’s a Saturday treat.

Bon weekend, people!

When Famous Poets Get Lost…


It’s a sad feeling, watching a poet you like slowly transform into a poet you like a little less. Or into a poet that’s a bit more mortal than believed. Or maybe into a poet that’s cashing in on his own capital, cannibal-like, over time.

The classic example nowadays is Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate and Everyman, a rare and precious combination in poetry-writing circles. Yes. Billy whose verse could speak not only to academics but to the masses. Billy who was both wise in his ways and homespun in his approach. Billy whose wit was drier than the Gobi on a sandy day (wait… oh, never mind).

These thoughts came home to roost yesterday when I read Billy’s latest (“Safe Travels”) in America’s glossiest (The New Yorker). Shall we voyage together?


Safe Travels
by Billy Collins

Every time Gulliver travels
into another chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels”
I marvel at how well travelled he is
despite his incurable gullibility.

I don’t enjoy travelling anymore
because, for instance,
I still don’t know the difference
between a “bloke” and a “chap.”

And I’m embarrassed
whenever I have to hold out a palm
of loose coins to a cashier
as if I were feeding a pigeon in the park.

Like Proust, I see only trouble
in store if I leave my room,
which is not lined with cork,
only sheets of wallpaper

featuring orange flowers
and little green vines.
Of course, anytime I want
I can travel in my imagination

but only as far as Toronto,
where some graduate students
with goatees and snoods
are translating my poems into Canadian.


It may be a bad habit, but I often wonder if famous writers’ works would see the light of publishing day if they were subject to blind readings. The opening stanza, not exactly intriguing as openers go, offers a poor play on words, first the title of Swift’s book becoming a noun and lower-case verb and second the pun on Gulliver’s name and the word “gullibility.”

Stanza two offers two British terms as reasons for Collins’ self-enforced (and Proust-like) sedentary ways.

The highlight of this poem comes in the third stanza with its alliteration and its simile (loose coins as pigeon feed), but then it’s on to Proust and the assumption that readers know the French writer kept house in a cork-walled bedroom.

What really throws me is the end. Like the opening, a poem’s last play calls for a trump card. Here it comes across as a rather random deuce. Toronto? Graduate students in snoods? And, as in the first stanza, a rather lame joke (translating English into Canadian) coupled with a lamentable tip of the hat to self: “translating my poems.”

That last grates a bit, almost as if Collins is in on the joke: “Ha-ha, look at me, famous poet using his name to take up bandwidth in the rich medium known as The New Yorker, writing poems alluding to my poems!”

Or maybe it’s mini-me, munching sour grapes on Lilliput. Acting like a Yahoo in general. And wishing I had a Houyhnhnm’s chance of horsing around on The New Yorker‘s pages, too.