Monday, August 07, 2006

500 words on Billy Collins

How can you not like Billy Collins? He’s the Mr. Rogers of American poetry.

How can you not like Billy Collins? He’s to poetry what Seinfeld is to comedy. Making a big deal about small things is a gift, and it sells—just like Erma Bombeck and Garrison Keillor.

If you wrote like Billy Collins you’d be popular, too.

And how can you fault his popularity? He writes lucidly about people and things that most of us encounter: cereal, cows, pencils, books, doors, wood. The much posited “average reader” can read him as well as the literati. Billy's persona is humble and likeable. Though most of his poems are written in the first person he is no narcissist. In his nimble hands his experiences become our experiences. He has mastered the everyman voice. And that is a great feat in itself.

Formally there is much to praise in his work. His poems have a natural cadence, loosely based on trimeter and tetrameter (which alternate strictly in common verse). His line breaks are nearly perfect, rarely forcing an unnatural enjambment; his punctuation is excellent as well. Whatever else you may think of him, Collins is a damn good craftsman.

So why do I get the nagging feeling among some poets that he’s already passé’? Some I’ve spoken with agree that Collins will likely not be remembered as a major American poet because he lacks depth. He makes it look too easy. To that I say, “Do you know how hard it is to make it look easy?” And no one has better elevated the quotidian into the sublime.

Collins is a poet who writes about small epiphanies in everyday things, and unlike many poets, he does his best to include the reader, as when he speaks to us in “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.” (Picnic, Lightening, 1998).

Collins is not your man if you want a memorable quote or a life-sustaining philosophy; he is your man if you want to make peace with the immediate universe.

The two commonest criticisms of Collins is that he’s either trivial or simplistic. He is neither. He’s a magician of common things, making common things uncommon, much like Frost did. In this, besides also being a good craftsman, he is the heir to Frost. And as for simplistic, didn’t Frost endure the same criticism?

On the back page of Picnic, Lightening is a photo of Billy. He has sad Irish eyes and though he's trying to appear neutral, I see the line of his mouth curl up at the edges as if he were incubating a grin. I'd like to think he is, as he is one of the most cheerful poets I've encountered. His macrocosmic view of the microcosm reminds me of Zymborska.

My favorite poem in Picnic, Lightning (the volume I’m reading now) is “Splitting Wood,” a choice no doubt strongly influenced by the fact that I love splitting wood. Here’s an excerpt:

“And rarely, if the wood
accepts the blade without conditions
the two pieces keep their balance

in spite of the blow,
remain stunned on the block
as if they cannot believe their division,

their sudden separateness.”

I’ve had this happen and it is truly an epiphany of log splitting.


I admit we had fun satirizing Collins in this issue of the Melic Review.

0.5 kilorats today. I still feel as if my body is getting lighter but there is a dark cave in my chest. It’s not a mixed state, it’s a state of recovery. When my depression is truly in remission, my chest won’t feel hollow any more. But even when I am whole I will remain wounded, the human paradox.

And I bet you all thought I was going to skewer Collins!

Thine as always,

C. E. Chaffin


  1. The Best Cigarette, Collins' cd, is fun to listen to.

    There are moments in his books when I say -- as does the Buddha in a Collins' poems -- "Aaah".

    I've read Picnic, Lightning a number of times.

    As you point out -- criticism of the simplistic was also directed at Frost, and I'll add William Stafford. Neither Frost nor Stafford was simple.

  2. What I always tell students: "Say something, anything!" I'm on these poets' side.

    Form without substance, a free-for-all for language, doesn't really interest me. If you want mind-boggling stuff you can always read Eliot's Four Quartets. It uses normal syntax but tell me it isn't psychedelic.

    You should see the kind of poetry being defended at Silliman's blog right now. Someone flattered me there by telling me I was too intelligent to reject out of hand non-syntactical poetry.

    I told him I was much dumber than he thought.

  3. great post! i like "a magician of common things"


  4. Hm, interesting thoughts on Collins. I have always liked what I liked, critics be damned. Often they just dislike what anything too popular by assuming there must be something wrong with it if "the commoners" understand it. But that's just my bitchy take.

  5. Anonymous7:08 AM PDT

    Goodness CE, that's the most restrained I've ever heard you on Collins.

    You really are mending fences on this mission to join the Dirty-Three-Hundred-and-Thirty.

    What a diplomat. I didn't know you had it in you.

    take care

  6. LOL!

    Actually, when I read a poet in more depth I usually find a surprising number of things to like.

    I admit I don't write like Billy and I wouldn't want to. I admit that he often bores me, and some of his poems, like many of mine, seem forced. But as a critic fairness is all; and compared to most writing I see today, Billy has to be considered superior for this age, as his sound bites are so easy to tolerate.

  7. Anonymous1:31 PM PDT

    I agree with you, I often wonder myself how someone can dislike Billy Collins. He is such a good poet. I recently read some Wallace Stevens' poetry and that just made me enjoy Collins' work even more. Stevens' poetry was confusing and even after I thought about it for a while, some questions I had after reading the poem remained unanswered. I never have that experience with Collins' poetry. That is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

    Anyway, just wanted to share some of my thoughts and tell you that this is a great post! Thanks!

  8. Stevens is hard by comparison, I agree, though fans tell me the effort is worth it. Billy? Everyone likes Billy. His deficiency is his strength; perhaps too many one-trick pony poems that don't demand you revisit them. But when he's on, he can be delightful.

  9. I just saw him read "Lanyard" and I loved it -- probably because I am one of the unwashed masses who like simple poetry. I liked your analysis of his craft and charm.


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