Billy Collins is probably the most famous living American poet whose name is not Maya Angelou. A pillar of American letters, he’s about as well regarded critically and popularly as it’s possible for a poet to be while still drawing breath, and living in a country that doesn’t much give a shit about poetry.
Because I live in a great city (Burlington, VT), I learned that Billy Collins was doing a free reading last week up on campus as UVM at the lovely, though horribly humid and hard-benched Ira Allen chapel, and my better half and I double dated (yeah, that’s right, double-dated to a poetry reading, sucka!) to watch Mr. Collins.
If you don’t know Billy Collins’s poems, you should. Even if you’re not a poetry fan. As someone once said, Collins writes poetry for people who don’t like poetry. That’s a bit trite, but kind of true. And his poems might just trick you into loving poetry. They possess the fairy dust of every day life at its funniest and most enlightening. His poems are easy to read and follow, yet never shallow or simple. They are always fresh, yet instantly recognizable.
In the hour he was on stage, Collins actually didn’t read all that much poetry. I’d sort of expected he’d read twenty or thirty poems and then slip away into the night. But he was also there to discuss poetry and in particular a book of poems he edited called Poetry 180, which he intended to be poems that could be read aloud to high school kids as little poetic nuggets. Poems that could be appreciated on the first pass. He talked a bit about his philosophy for writing poems, which is to craft poems that tend to start in the concrete and then venture gradually into the not so concrete, perhaps even abstraction or a dream state. He talked about poetry’s tendency to plunge a reader into a dark basement and make them search for a flashlight, and how his method is the opposite, to craft poems whose “game” is easy to spot. Poems that aren’t trying to hide from the reader, that desire to make their intent a bit more clear so as to increase enjoyment and accessibility. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, rah rah rah. It’s poetry! Who cares?
But I was there; it was damn interesting. It was a packed house. People were riveted.
If nothing else, it’s always a thrill to see in the flesh an artist who you’ve long admired from afar. He was dapper, self-depricating, hilarious, and completely lovable. I kind of wish I could hang out with him, or that he was my uncle or something.
So you can better smell what I’m cookin, here’s a clip of Collins reading one of his most famous poems, and one he read for us the other night, “The Lanyard.” It’s the blend of funny and sweet and sad that so many of his poems possess. He was a bit more dynamic the other night than in this clip, but you’ll see what I mean.