Billy Collins. As you’re talking to the two-time U.S. Poet Laureate—and once New York’s as well—you kind of want to stick out your hand and say hello, even though he’s in Florida, and you’re here, where you are at home in Adams Morgan. The name has a rock-solid feeling to it, a reality you cannot deny, as real as someone standing next to you waiting for the light to change. You wonder, too, how his fortunes might have fared had he been born in a different place with a different name, say Thaddeus Slowisky, would people even approach him in such familiar ways.
Talking with Collins—I won’t presume the “Billy,” although he doesn’t mind being called that—is an oddly familiar experience, like meeting an Irishman in an Irish bar, where the spoken word will surely ensue. Collins, by heritage and background, is Irish—big and happy surprise, that—and he writes poetry that thousands, maybe millions, of people read and have read. They have also downloaded, heard in the flesh, so to speak, or spoken out loud themselves, or listened to on National Public Radio, or stumbled across like a grand field of verse and video on YouTube, where he is as omni-present as a Taylor Swift song, but not nearly so irritating.
I bring this up not because Collins’ poems are like a Taylor Swift song—although it’s likely he will one day suddenly write a poem about the comparison and it will be pointed, mysterious and funny all at the same time—but because in that rarefied, often academic, will-o’-the-wisp world of literature, of which poetry is its most literary branch, Collins is an odd duck. He is hugely popular, maybe, as the New York Time noted and more than one commentator noted, the “most popular poet in America.” By poetic standards, Collins has made quite a bit of money plying his art, once getting an astounding (for poetry) six-figure advance for three books not yet written.
Of course, that kind of success—popularity plus money—are the whipping sticks used by less fortunate and more obscure poets, not to mention lean and thinly high priests of literature, to try to dismiss the worth of the work. Collins, in turn, dismisses the success while not shunning it. “These things are nice, no question,” he said. “But they have little to do with the writing and creation or value of poetry.” As for those honors, he said, “I was dumbfounded being named laureate. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do besides give a talk.” These honors were bestowed in 2001 and 2002, but Collins did do things. He created a special program to teach poetry in high schools called “Poetry 180,” using 180 poems he selected, as well as coming up with a sequel for 180 more.
“I’m proud of that, sure,” he said. “I think young people today are very susceptible to poetry, not perhaps in its formal processes, but there you are. It’s an exciting time for poetry, I think.” Collins can make you laugh or smile. Each of his poems, you suspect, involves serious business, and Collins is serious about the craft, art and worth of poetry. It may have something to do with the Irish background—or the fact that his mother recited poems to him regularly. It is a truism that in the company of that tribe, which can be magical, joyous and musical, there always comes a moment spent in encountering and discussing God, the bitter end, matters of the universal universe. This happens all the time in poetry.
As a poet and a human being, Collins is not one for living in a cave. He splits his time between homes in New York and Florida, does readings, gives talks, and teaches and continues to write poems that ambush poetry readers.
We got to talking about the Irish a little, about dogs, about process, about the puzzle of his popularity. “I’m said to write about everyday life or the stuff of everyday life,” he said. “That’s true enough, I suppose, but it’s not that simple. There’s the surface, there’s what lies beneath, so to speak, and perhaps things I haven’t thought about. Ideas, images, they do come up sometimes without being sent for.”
He came to being a poet a little late in life—influenced by professors, by other poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the beats, when he was, admittedly, young. But Collins and his poetry are like nothing and nobody, influences be damned. For one thing, we had this little chat about dogs, because I mentioned that I missed walking my dog who had passed away earlier this year. He sympathized—he had lost his dog the year before. And perhaps not surprisingly, some of his poems are about dogs. He believes, as many dog owners do, that we try to live up to what our dogs think of us. Then again, there’s “The Revenant,” a poem by Collins which suggests an altogether different, sly, counter-sentimental view that perhaps dogs know us too well and carry an honest grudge to the grave.
Collins’s poems—often funny, hence a literary prize for a Mark Twain Humor category—are rooted in classicism—in terms of referencing—in jazz—in terms of an often improvisational style—and, yes, in the commonplace, which he manages to make most uncommon and in a formalism that isn’t Victorian or iambic. They seem more like haiku, although not as short.
As for myself, I think Collins is constantly awake in the world, sometimes buffeted, sometimes embracing the wind and the trash it leaves behind. His imagery comes from music and dreams and the stuff of daily breathing, as fanciful as a baby, as real as a cold call. He inspires, and he puts solid words out there that make you think about real time, not virtual time. Recently, a minister at a Georgetown church invoked Collins in a sermon, read and used his wondrous poem, “When I Was Ten,” in a sermon on “Everyday Miracles.” That’s what Collins does, he makes for all time everyday miracles called poems.