(Poets and Poetry in America)

Poet Stephen Dunn, in a review of Picnic, Lightning, wrote, “We seem always to know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going.” Collins has expressed his distaste for poetry that seems to have been written in code, accessible only to the cognoscenti. Such poems, he implies in the poem “Introduction to Poetry,” create readers who believe that the only way to approach a poem is to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it,” while the writer longs for readers who can “waterski/ across the surface of a poem/ waving at the author’s name on the shore.” That suggests why his subjects tend to be drawn from the ordinary, the events of everyone’s life—driving, shoveling snow, eating dinner or breakfast. Collins’s humor and accessibility go a long way in accounting for his enormous popularity as a contemporary poet. However, the easy entrée into a Collins poem belies its surprising, often profound, ending. One unusual influence provides insight into why Collins’s poems take such unexpected turns. “My own poetry would have not developed in the direction it did were it not for the spell that was cast over me as a boy by Warner Bros. cartoons. These animations offered me a flexible, malleable world that defied Isaac Newton, a world of such plasticity that anything imaginable was possible.” Collins often uses humor to lead the reader into a more serious and unexpected place by the poem’s conclusion. “If you can create a humorous reaction in someone right away, you’ve drawn a circle around you and the reader so you’re inside this humor, and then you can go off in other directions so the poem is not as funny at the end as it is in the beginning.”

A reviewer of Questions About Angels said that Collins’s technique produces poems that evoke no emotional response from the reader, but many readers would disagree. John Taylor, reviewing Picnic, Lightning for Poetry magazine, argued that melancholy lies just below the surface in Collins’s work; indeed, his humor often seems simply a means, an invitation to serious reflection. These qualities of accessibility, humor, and regard for the everyday are present in all Collins’s work from the earliest to the latest. Certainly The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning seem to mark a movement into poems of greater reflection, a reduction in the number of poems of pure playfulness that marked earlier volumes, a movement that is confirmed in The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems and Ballistics. The witty, joking tone of The Apple That Astonished Paris gives way in these last volumes to a kind of relaxed meditation.

The Apple That Astonished Paris

In The Apple That Astonished Paris, the poems establish a list of typical Collins subjects and his approaches to them: History is represented here, along with travel, writing, books, and some examples of playful imagination. In “Flames,” for example, Collins imagines Smokey the Bear, discouraged and angry at the perennial failure of his campaign against forest fires: “He is sick of dispensing/ warnings to the careless,/ the half-wit camper,/ the dumbbell hiker.” Looking oddly threatening, Smokey sets out with gasoline and matches. The poem concludes, “He is going to show them/ how a professional does it.”

Collins often uses an abstract title that he subsequently explores in a variety of concrete images. In “Books,” for example, the abstract title leads, in the first stanza, to a picture of an academic library at night, empty of patrons but humming with the voices of its authors resting on their dark shelves. The second stanza pictures a man in the act of reading; he is “a man in two worlds”—the physical world in which he lives as well as the book’s world of imagination. The third stanza recalls the narrator’s mother, reading to him in a voice that offered him the same duality. The mother’s voice was both her own and at the same time the vehicle of the frightening events of the story. The narrator finally imagines “all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves.” The words become like “a trail of crumbs,” the trail that the reader follows into the forest of the book.

“Death” is constructed similarly. From its abstract title, Collins moves swiftly to imagining how the news of a death in the family traveled in the past and then describes the telephone as the modern means of delivering bad news. Telephones are everywhere; the reader can almost hear one ringing—“ready to summon you, ready to fall from your hand.”

Many of the poems in the volume are shorter than those in Collins’s later work, but they foreshadow many of his later themes and subjects—visits to Tuscany and Ireland; the imaginative creation of a town called “Schoolsville,” peopled by all the students the speaker has ever taught; a miniature world history, an organization that Collins uses often, in “Personal History,” where the speaker courts his love from the Middle Ages through the Industrial Revolution only to end up in this postmodern age, driving with her to the movie theater in a Volkswagen.

Questions About Angels

Questions About Angels seems to move to a level beyond that of The Apple That Astonished Paris while still using themes and subjects familiar to Collins’s readers. The writer’s voice also continues in its range of irony, meditation, and amusement. In this volume, however, the humor often leads to a more sharply serious conclusion. “Forgetfulness,” for example, seems at first to be a humorous consideration of what happens to one’s memory in middle age:

The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.

Collins goes on to catalog other things one might forget—the names of the Muses, the order of the planets, the address of a relative. They are so completely lost that it is as if they have retired to a remote fishing village “where there are no phones.” The list and its attendant images are funny, but the poem concludes on a suddenly melancholy note: “No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted/ out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”

“First Reader” offers a similar experience, beginning comically with a picture of Dick and Jane, characters from the popular series of elementary school readers in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Collins calls them “the boy and girl who begin fiction,” for that is how they functioned for children learning to read. Collins quotes a line of frequent dialogue from those...

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