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When poet Billy Collins received a call from Librarian of Congress James Billington offering him the post of United States poet laureate, it never occurred to Collins that he could decline the offer. ”I just assumed I was being called up, as though I’d been sitting on the bench of poetry all my life and the coach says, ‘Get in there, Collins’,” he told Newsweek. Collins is the author of several books of poetry, including Questions about Angels (1991) and Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001). ”Billy Collins’ poetry is widely accessible,” Billington told CNN.com. ”He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Collins’s Awkward Phase
Collins was born in 1941 in French Hospital in Manhattan, where famed American poet William Carlos Williams, who was also a medical doctor, once served. Both Collins’s father, an electrician from a large Irish-Catholic family, and his mother, a nurse, were in their forties when they had Collins, their only child. Collins was raised in Queens until he was in junior high school, and his father, switching careers, became a prosperous insurance broker. The family then moved to affluent Westchester County, New York and joined a country club.
Collins produced his first poem when he was twelve years old, and wrote for his high school’s literary magazine. Inspired by the issues of the journal Poetry his encouraging father brought home to him, Collins’s fascination with poetry intensified. Following high school, he attended Holy Cross College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1963. He then went on to obtain his PhD in romantic poetry at the University of California, Riverside. Collins remained on the West Coast to be a “proto-beatnik and to write bad Ferlinghetti,” as he told Linton Weeks of The Washington Post. Still far from developing his own style, he continued, ”I took a little bit of everything.” Like many poets, Collins began by thinking there was no room for humor in poetry. ”My bad poems were bad in the beginning because they were emotionally heavy, brooding, then profound and ponderous” he told Newsweek.
A Poet Matures
Despite the awkwardness of his early work, Collins’s passion for poetry was undeterred and he eventually sold several short poems, inspired by the marijuana culture of the time, to Rolling Stone for thirty-five dollars each. Subsequently, he began perfecting a more distinctive and personal style of writing, far lighter in tone than the plodding work of his twenties. Having taken on a teaching position at Lehman College in the Bronx in 1970, Collins’s work benefited from the clearer mind that came with maturity. In 1977, his life stabilized further when he married Diane Olbright, then of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and now an architect. Collins and his wife moved to a restored 1860s Colonial home with a few acres of land in Somers, New York, about forty minutes from the Bronx. That year, he published his first collection, Pokerface (1977).
Entering his forties in the early 1980s, Collins finally began to explore lighter themes in his work, and developed the unique voice that would bring him to prominence in the world of poetry. That voice was mildly whimsical and welcoming. His chief goal was to make poetry pleasurable, not ponderous. As he would tell a writer for Powell’s Books, ”My poetry is suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that.” He writes about life’s small things, ”the mysterious notes one finds in the margins of used books, lingerie catalogues, houseplants, nursery rhyme characters, music.”
The Poet Laureate
In 2001, Collins was rewarded for his fresh, accessible body of work when he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. The honor of poet laureate is bestowed on the most distinguished and representative poet of his or her country, and Collins was eager to take the position. However, he continued to maintain his position at Lehman College. Like the laureates before him, who included Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and Rita Dove, Collins’s aim was to use the poet laureate position to boost awareness of poetry. ”Poetry is a neglected species,” he told a reporter for Newsweek. Though there are more poetry readings and about two hundred graduate-level programs now—compared to only two when Collins was in college—the laureate planned to travel, ”trying to make connections with readers,” he told Newsweek.
Collins held his title as poet laureate until 2003, and was further honored on his home turf the following year when he was named New York State Poet of 2004. Collins continues to work and reside in New York. His latest work, Ballistics: Poems, was released in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Satire is an approach to any literary, graphic, or performing art that intends to ridicule humanity’s follies, vices, and shortcomings. Satire is distinguished by a humorous, ironic, satiric tone. The term was first applied to a collection of poetry by the ancient Roman poet Quintus Ennius (239-c. 169 B.C.E.) that ridiculed his fellow poet Accius. Humorous poet Collins has classified some of his own work as satire, directing his pen at the excesses and pretensions of colleagues, as he did with ”Irish Poetry,” a satire of Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Works in Critical Context
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
Collins has long enjoyed enthusiastic appreciation from both critics and the public for his unpretentious, humorous, and deeply human poetry. His collection of old favorites and recent triumphs titled Sailing Alone Around the Room was widely appreciated for its simplicity and accessibility. In an extensive study of the collection in the Yale Review of Books, reviewer Allie Stielau took note of the collection’s preoccupation with romance, describing him as
a man who finds poetry in catalogues and calendars and boring Tuesday mornings, who sees sonnets in postcards and can describe a favorite haiku in ten different ways. Indeed, what better advocate of poetry could America have than a poet who sees himself as a lovestruck student, his poems as the paper airplanes that boy folds and flies at his darling, hoping to make a direct hit?
The Best Cigarette
Upon its first release, Collins’s audio book of poetry The Best Cigarette (1997) enjoyed the same praise that the vast majority of his contemporary work has received throughout the literary community. Ira Glass of the National Public Radio program This American Life succinctly praised the audio book for being ”unpretentious, funny, and good.” However, a reviewer for The New York Times recognized that Collins was also capable of taking the listener to more solemn territory when it noted how, with his penchant for ”[l]uring his readers into the poem with humor, Mr. Collins leads them unwittingly into deeper, more serious places, a kind of journey from the familiar or quirky to unexpected territory, sometimes tender, often profound.”
- ”Pushing Poetry to Lighten Up—and Brighten Up.” Newsweek (July 9, 2001). Weber, Bruce. ”On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock.” New York Times(December 19, 1999).
- Weeks, Linton. ”The Bard of Simple Things: For Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Writing Verse Is a Lot Like Breathing.” Washington Post (November 28, 2001): C1
- Wetzel, Cynthia Magriel. ”With Humour, Poet lures Fans to the Serious.” New York Times (November 30, 1997).
- Billy Collins: Complete resource for Billy Collins poems, books, recordings. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.billy-collins.com/.
- Billy Collins Interview Excerpts. The Cortland Review: An Online Literary Magazine in RealAudio. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.cortland review.com/features/05/spring/ billy_collins.html.
- com Entertainment. New U.S. Poet Laureate Named. Accessed November 29, 2008, from http://archives.cnn.com/2001/SHOWBIZ/ books/06/21/us.poet.laureate/index.html.
- Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics. A Brisk Walk: An Interview with Billy Collins. Accessed November 29, 2008, from http://www.guernicamag.com/ interviews/185/a_brisk_walk/.
- The Poetry Archive. Billy Collins. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.poetryarchive.org/ poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=6478.
- Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Interview with Billy Collins (transcript). Accessed November 29, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/ entertainment/july-dec01/collins_12-10.html.
- Weich, Dave. “Billy Collins, Bringing Poetry to the Public.” Powell’s Books. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.powells.com/authors/ collins.html.
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