How popular a poet is Billy Collins?
In America, he’s at the top. His books bear the stamp of a major commercial publisher, Random House, and sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies when the sales of many other contemporary poets’ books run into the low four figures.
Moreover, the audiences for the 40 or so public readings he gives each year are both legion and large. His National Public Radio benefit poetry reading at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on April 20, 2005, drew a capacity crowd and had actor Bill Murray introducing him. And not long ago at the University of Wisconsin, Collins read to an audience exceeding 2,000.
“That was an indoor record for me,” he said matter-of-factly from his home in Somers, Westchester County, N.Y. “Reading my poetry in public has become almost a side career in itself.”
How respected a poet is Billy Collins?
He was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, a period when he launched “Poetry 180,” a website presenting a poem a day for the uncritical enjoyment of American high-school students during the academic year.
“No discussion, no explication, no quiz, no midterm, no seven-page paper–just listen to a poem every morning and off you go to your first class,” Collins explained in “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry,” the first of two anthologies inspired by this Internet service.
Why pitch it to pupils in high school? “Because all too often it is the place where poetry goes to die,” he dryly observed.
In the Jan./Feb. 2006 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, Garrison Keillor, host of National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” good-naturedly parodied the style of seven famous poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, and Billy Collins. A champion of verse on his radio program who published “Good Poems for Hard Times” in 2002, Keillor previously gave Collins the exposure that helped to transform his life.
“My whole career changed around 1998,” Collins recalled. “I had a new book of poetry out, ‘Picnic, Lightning,’ from the University of Pittsburgh Press, and within two or three months of publication, I appeared on Garrison’s program and Terry Gross’s ‘Fresh Air.’ Both of those radio programs have audiences of two to four million people, and I was reading my poems to them. Book sales went off the charts, and invitations poured in to give readings. It was the power of National Public Radio that put a booster rocket on my career.”
Suddenly, Billy Collins the poet was hot, and no one was more surprised than Collins himself.
“Like most poets, I started out reading in church basements for a hundred dollars,” he said. “I can’t really understand why I’ve been singled out for this popularity, but I’m not complaining.”
That humility flows genuinely from Billy Collins. He was born in New York City to Katherine Collins, a Canadian-born nurse whose Irish roots were in Waterford, and William Collins, a second-generation Irish American of Cork heritage from Lowell, Mass., who started out as an electrician and eventually became an insurance company executive.
“My father was from a large, poor Irish family in Lowell, and his was an upwardly mobile struggle,” Billy said.
From parochial school right through his undergraduate years at Holy Cross College, Billy Collins had a Catholic education. It ended when he entered graduate school at the University of California at Riverside. “That was the first time I had been in a classroom with a female since the eighth grade,” he added with a laugh.
A Ph.D. in Romantic poetry became his passport to a three-decade career as a college teacher, rising to the rank of distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx. For a time he was also a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College and conducted summer poetry workshops at University College Galway in Ireland. Today Collins is the New York State Poet Laureate and CUNY Poet in Residence with duties at multiple campuses.
His memories of classroom instruction remain with him and have even seeped in quasi-comic form into his verse. In the poem “Schoolsville” he writes: “Once in a while a student knocks on the door / with a term paper fifteen years late / or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.”
The shower of awards for Collins’s poetry is impressive even apart from his poet laureateships. He has won the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the National Poetry Series Publication Prize, and the Levinson Prize. His admirers include Annie Proulx, Richard Howard, and John Updike, who said of his poems: “Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and some others besides.”
One adjective Collins is tired of seeing attached to his poetry is “accessible,” which he said “has begun to grate on me because it’s become overused.” He prefers “hospitable” or, better yet, “reader-conscious.” For Collins, poetry should welcome the reader in, not bar the door.
“The beginning of a poem, its first sentence or two, should get you into the building,” he explained. “Once inside, the reader can then find the complicated and the demanding, paradox and mystery. At that point I hope the reader finds he’s been trapped in this imaginative pattern, where the poem becomes a little more quizzical, nebulous, and elusive.”
Among Irish titles or subjects for his poetry are “Tourist: Dromahair, Co. Sligo,” “Horseman, Pass By” with its Yeatsian context, “Afternoon With Irish Cows,” “Design,” where he mentions the Ring of Kerry and the white rose of Tralee, and “Home Again,” where the Corrib River and Ballyvaughan are cited.
“When I go to Ireland, I feel I’m going to an ancestral home,” Collins said. “I have an absolute sense of tribal connection there.”
The imaginative pattern Collins weaves in his verse also offers some enticing threads of music. References range from the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” the Swan Silvertones, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the Ronettes, and Jackie Wilson to the jazz of Art Blakey, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, and Johnny Hartman. In his poem “Man Listening to Disc,” Collins vividly evokes the sounds and feelings of one jazz album in particular, “Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins,” recorded in Nov. 1953 and Oct. 1954.
“I’d probably give up all the poetry if I could be a kind of B-plus jazz piano player,” Collins admitted.
Besides playing the piano, he loves to harmonize, dating back to the time he and his high-tenor father would sing together. This past New Year’s Eve on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Collins harmonized for the first time on national radio when he and jazz singer Prudence Johnson sang together. He’s looking forward to doing the same with his Westchester County friend, Cathie Ryan, on March 5 at the Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling, N.Y.
“When I’m around a professional singer like Cathie, who has a terrific voice and indulges me, I’ll sing into the night,” Collins said. “I’ll read some poems at the Towne Crier, Cathie will sing some Irish songs, and we’ll harmonize maybe on some Hank Williams, Everly Brothers, and George Jones. Like a lot of people, I’m a frustrated musician.”