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.
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."
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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.