Questions about Angels

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Overview

Remarkable for their wry, inquisitive voice and their sheer imaginative range, these poems are probing explorations, journeys into the unexpected.
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Overview

Remarkable for their wry, inquisitive voice and their sheer imaginative range, these poems are probing explorations, journeys into the unexpected.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Billy Collins can pack the house. Funny and laid-back, his clear, often brief poems are easy to understand and enjoy -- which is why his readings are sometimes standing-room-only affairs. Collins may be a college professor and NEA-grant recipient, but he's not above using a disinfectant ad as an epigraph.

"Public restrooms give me the willies," reads the epigraph to a poem appropriately titled "The Willies." That man-on-the-street brand of humor, utterly stripped of academic pretense, is trademark Collins.

QUESTIONS ABOUT ANGELS, a reissue of Collins's fourth volume of poems, offers 70 pages of well-formed, very American verse that -- not surprisingly -- doesn't require a shelf of dictionaries. In fact, just as he laughs at epigraphs, Collins gleefully pokes fun at the very concept of dictionaries. Here, for example, are the opening lines to "The Hunt," which initially offer the flowing, dreamy verse many expect from a poet:

      Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm country
      that lie beyond speech
      Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
      across the landscape tracking down a new word.

Then Collins really gets going, letting his claws dig in. In the next stanza, that trademark humor really shows:

      It is a small noun about the size of a mouse,
      one that will seldom be used by anyone,
      like a synonym for isthmus
      but they are pursuing the creature zealously

Collins could be talking about poetry itself, a form "zealously pursued" but too often "seldom used." Despite the deadpan tone, these are poems that are aware of poetic tradition. QUESTIONS ABOUT ANGELS opens with a poem called "American Sonnet," which announces that "We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser." Collins seems to believe that his particular American landscape and culture requires a variation on the standard forms of Western tradition. This country, he seems to say, demands a rethinking of it all.

Part of that rethinking is a probe of the whole idea of a "poet." Collins asks the questions his students would love to ask, if they only had the guts. How, he asks, do you know for sure if a poet is contemporary? This, of course, is a twist on the earlier, unspoken-but-understood question of "What makes a sonnet a sonnet, anyway?" addressed in the first poem.

Just as he produced an American "sonnet" that rolls off the tongue with the ease of banter, Collins comes up with an American, can-do answer to the "who's a contemporary poet?" question:

      It is easy to find out if a poet is a contemporary poet
      and thus avoid the imbroglio of calling him Victorian
      or worse, Elizabethan, or worse, medieval.

      If you look him up in The Norton Anthology of English Literature
      and the year of his birth is followed only by a dash
      and a small space for the numerals only spirits know,
      then it is safe to say that he is probably alive

Though clothed in simple words and humor, Collins is actually taking a pretty sophisticated jab in these two stanzas, which are the first part of the appropriately titled poem "The Norton Anthology of English Literature." Is a poet worthy simply because he is in the anthology? And do these omnipresent anthologies really define periods and countries? Coming just a few pages after the Noah Webster reference, Collins may also be pushing his readers to wonder about the anthologizers' research processes.

Collins loves to mix poems to history's overachievers with odes to underachievers or family pets who never seemed to have much, if any, ambition. In one of the book's sweeter poems, Collins offers praise of a character named Riley. Here's the last stanza of the very brief poem "The Life of Riley: A Definitive Biography," where yet again, Collins mixes the quotidian and the poetic, letting his linguistic ability peep through the everyman persona at key moments:

      He never had a job, a family or a sore throat.
      He never mowed a lawn.
      Passersby would always stop to remind him
      whose life it was he was living.
      He died in a hammock weighing a cloud.

In a book that mentions weighing a dog and stripping layers of clothing off as he writes, it makes sense that this poet doesn't flinch from depicting the weighing of a cloud. Like the character who never had a sore throat, Collins writes glitch-free poems that are both a breeze and a blast to read.

--Aviya Kushner

Kushner
Billy Collins can pack the house. Funny and laid-back, his clear, often brief poems are easy to understand and enjoy -- which is why his readings are sometimes standing-room-only affairs. Collins may be a college professor and NEA-grant recipient, but he's not above using a disinfectant ad as an epigraph.

"Public restrooms give me the willies," reads the epigraph to a poem appropriately titled "The Willies." That man-on-the-street brand of humor, utterly stripped of academic pretense, is trademark Collins.

Questions About Angels , a reissue of Collins's fourth volume of poems, offers 70 pages of well-formed, very American verse that -- not surprisingly -- doesn't require a shelf of dictionaries. In fact, just as he laughs at epigraphs, Collins gleefully pokes fun at the very concept of dictionaries. Here, for example, are the opening lines to "The Hunt," which initially offer the flowing, dreamy verse many expect from a poet:

Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm country
that lie beyond speech
Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
across the landscape tracking down a new word.

Then Collins really gets going, letting his claws dig in. In the next stanza, that trademark humor really shows:
It is a small noun about the size of a mouse,
one that will seldom be used by anyone,
like a synonym for isthmus
but they are pursuing the creature zealously

Collins could be talking about poetry itself, a form "zealously pursued" but too often "seldom used." Despite the deadpan tone, these are poems that are aware of poetic tradition.Questions About Angels opens with a poem called "American Sonnet," which announces, "We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser." Collins seems to believe that his particular American landscape and culture require a variation on the standard forms of Western tradition. This country, he seems to say, demands a rethinking of it all.

Part of that rethinking is a probe of the whole idea of a "poet." Collins asks the questions his students would love to ask, if they only had the guts. How, he asks, do you know for sure if a poet is contemporary? This, of course, is a twist on the earlier, unspoken-but-understood question of "what makes a sonnet a sonnet, anyway?" addressed in the first poem.

Just as he produced an American "sonnet" that rolls off the tongue with the ease of banter, Collins comes up with an American, can-do answer to the "who's a contemporary poet?" question:

It is easy to find out if a poet is a contemporary poet
and thus avoid the imbroglio of calling him Victorian
or worse, Elizabethan, or worse, medieval.

If you look him up in The Norton Anthology of English Literature
and the year of his birth is followed only by a dash
and a small space for the numerals only spirits know,
then it is safe to say that he is probably alive

Though clothed in simple words and humor, Collins is actually taking a pretty sophisticated jab in these two stanzas, which are the first part of the appropriately titled poem "The Norton Anthology of English Literature." Is a poet worthy simply because he is in the anthology? And do these omnipresent anthologies really define periods and countries? As these stanzas come just a few pages after the Noah Webster reference, Collins may also be pushing his readers to wonder about the anthologizers' research processes.

Collins loves to mix poems on history's overachievers with odes to underachievers or family pets who never seemed to have much, if any, ambition. In one of the book's sweeter poems, Collins offers praise of a character named Riley. Here's the last stanza of the very brief poem "The Life of Riley: A Definitive Biography," where yet again, Collins mixes the quotidian and the poetic, letting his linguistic ability peep through the everyman persona at key moments:

He never had a job, a family or a sore throat.
He never mowed a lawn.
Passersby would always stop to remind him
whose life it was he was living.
He died in a hammock weighing a cloud.

In a book that mentions weighing a dog and stripping layers of clothing off as he writes, it makes sense that this poet doesn't flinch from depicting the weighing of a cloud. Like the character who never had a sore throat, Collins writes glitch-free poems that are both a breeze and a blast to read.

--Aviya Kushner

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Smack-dab in the middle of this collection is the delightful ``Purity,'' a poem detailing Collins's macabre writing process. On Wednesdays, in the late afternoon, the poet goes to his study and sheds his clothes. He then removes his flesh--``so that what I write will be pure, / completely rinsed of the carnal''--and takes out each of his organs so as not ``to hear their ancient rhythms / when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.'' ``Purity'' is about ideas rather than feelings, but the poet executes his metaphors with perfect precision and a bravura wit. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about most of the other poems here. Collins's images are often strange and wonderful but too frequently his poems are constricted by the novelty of a unifying metaphor. In ``Cliche,'' Collins ( Pok er face ) writes about his life as ``an open book,'' and all that we eventually end up learning is that he ``loves to feel the daily turning of the pages.'' We can admire the scope of Collins's imagination, but his poems rarely induce an emotional reaction, precluding us from any affinity with his experience. This volume was selected by Edward Hirsch for the 1990 National Poetry Series. (June)
Library Journal
This book, one of five winners of the 1990 National Poetry Series competition, is Collins's fourth book of poems. Unrhymed, playfully subdued in tone, and somewhat restrained by a loose hexameter line, Collins's poems might be characterized as metaphysical musings in a whimsical mode. The poet mocks human inflexibility (``the only question you ever hear is about/ the little dance floor on the head of a pin''), hankers after the American pastoral (in ``American Sonnet''), and imagines being transformed by Kafka into the New York Public Library: ``I would feel the pages of books turning inside me like butterflies./ I would stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face.'' Although occasionally glib or bland in themselves, these poems build upon each other, and those who read this volume from start to finish will be moved by the accumulated power of a poet who is not afraid to be alone with his imaginary, dissembling landscapes. For general and academic collections.--Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York
Washington Post
"One of the richest imaginations around . . . the affectionate humor with which Mr. Collins regards his surroundings amounts to a powerful kind of love, a reverence of the moment."—
From the Publisher

“Billy Collins can be downright funny; he’s a parodist, a feigning trickster, an ironic, entertaining magician-as-hero. . . . Without question, Collins writes with verve, gumption and deep intelligence. Not many poets can infuse humor with such serious knowledge; not many can range so far  throughout  history and look so freshly into the future. Not many can please so thoroughly and still manage to chide, prod, urge, criticize, and teach.”
--Poetry Magazine

 “One of the richest imaginations around . . . the affectionate humor with which Mr. Collins regards his surroundings amounts to a powerful kind of love, a reverence of the moment.”
--Washington Post

 “Collins is jazzman and Buddhist, charmer and prince.”

—Booklist

“Billy Collins's poetry is widely accessible. He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist.”

—James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress announcing the appointment of Billy Collins as Poet Laureate

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822956983
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 1/7/1999
  • Series: Pitt Poetry Series Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 88
  • Sales rank: 631,996
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Billy Collins
Billy Collins
Enjoying a popularity unheard of for most poets, Billy Collins has had a remarkable late-life surge, aided by NPR exposure and his 2001 and 2002 appointments as the U.S. poet laureate. His style is engaging, conversational, funny, and surprising.

Biography

In 1985, the humorist Calvin Trillin suggested that Robert Penn Warren would never have been named Poet Laureate if he'd been known as plain Bob Warren. Trillin might be surprised at the 2002 appointment of Billy Collins -- whose laid-back name suits his open-collar-and-blue-jeans appearance, as well as his unpretentious writing style -- to a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.

But then, Collins himself might be a little surprised. Like most poets, he toiled in obscurity for years, snowed under by rejections from small literary journals. As recently as 1997, he couldn't interest a commercial publisher in his fifth book of poems, Picnic, Lightning. But word of mouth and Collins' appearances on National Public Radio helped push sales of the book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, far beyond the usual figures for a volume of poetry from a university press. A previous book was reissued, Random House signed him up for a three-book deal, and Collins was on his way to fame and comparative fortune.

Why is Collins so popular now? One term often applied to his work is "accessible," though he prefers the term "hospitable." "I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty," he explained to Elizabeth Farnsworth on the PBS NewsHour. Collins is also very funny -- and that, too, is inviting. For Collins, anything from the barking of a neighbor's dog to the egg-salad stain on a copy of The Catcher in the Rye can be a fit subject for a poem.

But Collins sees accessibility and humor as means to an end. The purpose of a poem, he believes, is to take the reader on an imaginative journey. "Poetry is my cheap means of transportation," he told a New York Times interviewer. "By the end of the poem the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him off in a cornfield."

Critics have sometimes charged that Collins' language is too prosaic, his middle-class milieu too smugly comfortable. But many of his contemporaries, including John Updike, Gerald Stern and Edward Hirsch, have admired his originality, wit and intelligence. As Richard Howard put it: "Mr. Collins is funny without being silly, moving without being silly, and brainy without being silly. If only he were silly, we should know how to 'place' him. But he is merely -- merely! -- funny, moving, brainy. That will have to do."

Good To Know

Collins grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, where his electrician father sometimes brought home issues of Poetry magazine from an office on Wall Street. "He wanted me to go to Harvard Business School," Collins said in a Hope magazine interview. "If he had known the effect of those magazines, he probably would have burned them."

As Poet Laureate, Collins launched a well-received program called Poetry 180, which encourages high schools to read a contemporary poem together each day, preferably by having a student, teacher or staff member read the poem aloud.

Collins is a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He lives in Somers, N.Y.

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    1. Also Known As:
      William James Collins
    2. Hometown:
      Somers, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 22, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Holy Cross College, 1963; Ph.D. in Romantic poetry, University of California at Riverside, 1971

Table of Contents

American Sonnet 3
A History of Weather 5
First Reader 7
Student of Clouds 9
Candle Hat 11
The Death of Allegory 13
Reading Myself to Sleep 15
The Norton Anthology of English Literature 17
The Hunt 19
Forgetfulness 20
Questions About Angels 25
A Wonder of the World 27
Mappamundi 29
The First Geniuses 31
The Afterlife 33
The Dead 35
Endangered 36
Going Out for Cigarettes 37
Purity 41
Cliche 43
Field Guide 44
Putti in the Night 45
The Man in the Moon 47
Horseman, Pass By! 48
Memento Mori 50
The Last Man on Earth 51
Come Running 52
Modern Peasant 53
Instructions to the Artist 54
Weighing the Dog 56
One Life to Live 57
The Wires of the Night 58
Axiom 60
Vade Mecum 61
Not Touching 61
Night Sand 62
Love in the Sahara 63
Invective 64
The Life of Riley: A Definitive Biography 67
Jack 68
Metamorphosis 70
Saturday Morning 71
Late Show 72
Pie Man 74
Wolf 75
The History Teacher 77
Pensee 79
The Discovery of Scat 81
Dog 82
The Willies 83
On Reading in the Morning Paper That Dreams May Be Only Nonsense 85
Rip Van Winkle 87
English Country House 88
Nostalgia 90
Acknowledgments 93
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Interviews & Essays

Poetry, Sweet and Cruel

One of the most interesting cultural phenomena that occurred in the waning years of the 20th century was the designation of April as National Poetry Month. I'm not sure why April got the call over the other months, unless it's the month's association with the hope of spring, a traditional sentiment in poetry. It's the first of a sequence of three months after which girls are named. Plus, April is a favorite reference in poetry. If you stretched a wire from the April in the first line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the April in the opening line of T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," you would create a tightrope on which you could walk over the history of English poetry. Come to think of it, an interesting subject for a course in poetry might be the study of how we got from "Aprille with hise shoures soote" (sweet showers, you remember) to "April is the cruelest month." Given the complex diversity of activities eager to fit themselves under the heading of "poetry" these days, it is tempting to simplify the big picture by dividing all poets into two camps: those who see April as sweet and those who see her as cruel. Poets of joy, poets of anxiety. The followers of Horace and Wordsworth, the followers of Kafka and Beckett.

Whether they are sweet or cruel by temperament, all poets are meant to enjoy the focus of National Poetry Month (NPM). This designation began with a declaration by President Clinton in 1995, and the idea of giving poetry its own month was quickly adopted by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. April suddenly became the occasion for a mixed bag of poetry-related activities. In 1998 Andrew Carroll, head of the American Poetry and Literacy (APL) Project, launched the Great APLseed Giveaway, a monthlong drive across America during which he handed out 100,000 books of poetry. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky began the Favorite Poem Project, which recorded more than 1,000 Americans from all walks of life reciting their favorite poems. In April of 1998, the Clintons hosted a "Millennial Evening" devoted to poetry, a fete at the White House with many poetry luminaries in attendance. Other Poetry Month events have expanded to include a frenzy of poetry readings at colleges, libraries, and bookstores, as well as the display of NPM announcements on some 1,800 movie screens controlled by Loews Cineplex Entertainment and the ongoing Poetry in Motion program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. Bookstores report spikes in their poetry sales during the month, reason enough for publishers to assign their poetry books an April pub date. Last year, Volkswagen of America placed 40,000 copies of an anthology called Songs of the Road in all the cars it produced in April. There is even a Young People's Poetry Week (April 16-21) within National Poetry Month! It's enough to make poetry lovers reach for a good long novel.

The Academy of American Poetry explains the purpose of NPM as the effort "to bring together booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools, and poets to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture." Of course, if poetry really did occupy such a vital place, it would not be necessary to reward it with its own month. Television actually does occupy a vital, even central place in American culture, which is why you will never hear of a National Television Month. Nor are you likely to see the appearance of a National Fiction Month, or a National Movies Month. National weeks and months are created to draw attention to the neglected, the under-sponsored, the largely disregarded. National Pork Month. National Secretaries Week. National Cabdriver Courtesy Month. Mother's Day speaks for itself.

Conversely, some people feel that poetry is such an essential element of human life that the idea of a National Poetry Month is as silly as a National God Month or National Oxygen Month. Poet and translator Richard Howard went on record as a vocal detractor of NPM in a talk he gave at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards titled "Poetry: Our Worst-Kept Secret." According to Howard, to designate a special month for poetry is both to commodify and to ghettoize it: If we just read a few poems in April, then we can forget about poetry for the rest of the year. Howard goes so far as to call National Poetry Month "the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine, two inventions that W. H. Auden once declared to be the bane of modernity." Howard's modest proposal (hard to say how ironic he is being here) is that we "restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures." In other words, poetry needs to return to the underground, where it will be sought out by those who truly desire and need it.

The commonplace wisdom that America is experiencing a poetry renaissance is supported by the sharp increase in poetry activities such as conferences, readings, and graduate programs in creative writing. Shouldn't this evidence be enough to silence those who have complained about the low status of poetry in our mass-media culture? Shouldn't we applaud such a revival of the most ancient art? The trouble is that the growing audience for poetry forms a closed circuit: Most of the people who are buying poetry books and attending readings are poets themselves, or people who would like to believe they are poets. It's a sad fact that many of those who attend readings are there primarily for the "open mike." They are not interested in poetry, only in their poetry. It would be like attending a concert where everyone in the audience was carrying a violin and hoping to get onstage at the end of the symphony to play a little tune they've been working on.

National Poetry Month is a benign and well-meaning phenomenon with a distinctly American ring to it. If all the hoopla manages to convert one young person to a lifetime of reading poetry, it's worth it, some might say. Yet there is something appealing about a small audience -- like the audience for jazz, which nicely overlaps the audience for poetry. Would jazz have the same appeal if everyone in the street were whistling "Round Midnight"? Would poetry offer its private pleasures so well if postal employees recited Hardy while they sorted letters? Surely, one month is not enough for poetry. Why only April? What about December? Didn't Yeats write in "On Being Asked for a War Poem" that it is enough for a poet to "please/A young girl in the indolence of her youth,/Or an old man upon a winter's night"?

—Billy Collins

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