24 March 2011

Billy Collins Goes on Tour

I admit I don’t read much poetry. I certainly don’t read poetry books all the way through without skipping a lot. I absolutely don’t read poetry books late into the next morning, going without sleep to enjoy the next poem, and the next.

I have never done this before – but Billy Collins, that sly poet from New York, got me and grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until I’d finished each page, then the Acknowledgments, the About This Type page, the jacket copy, and the front matter, then a couple of poems over again...

The book is “Horoscopes for the Dead” and it begins with a poem titled Grave. Most of this collection concerns the dead and the living, what we’ve lost, what we are inevitably going to lose, and how the poet and therefore you may feel about all this.

“What do you think of my new glasses
I asked as I stood under a shade tree
before the joined grave of my parents.

“And what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond.”

The opening verses of Grave sound whimsical perhaps, and grim. No doubt someone who reads more poetry than I would find echoes of Whitman in the phrase “rows of the dead” and Frost in “the fields and the woods beyond.”

Collins in this poem plays another of his snob-deflating tricks. First, there’s a kind of overly high-minded passage...

“One of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,”

Followed a few verses later by a healthy deflation... “I was the one ... who had just made up the business of the 100 Chinese silences.”

Despite the ever-present playfulness, the light-hearted humor, paradoxically some of these poems are deeply moving. The poet presses first one ear and then the other into the grass hoping to hear his mother and father’s voices... “What do you think of my new glasses?” Finally the poet and the reader approach the real silence:

“the Silence of the Lotus,
cousin to the Silence of the Temple Bell
only deeper and softer, like petals, at its farthest edges.”

Of course, the surest way to destroy a good poem must be to break it apart and try to retell it. The poet has already told his story more plainly and more, well, poetically, than anyone else can ever do.

Throughout this collection I half-smiled at many turns of phrase and unexpected zigs between one line and another. His poems can be surprisingly sophisticated and homely and plain pretty much at the same time. Billy Collins engages his reader in dialog without ever asking for more than a willingness to listen. Even a casual reader is drawn right in to Collins’ stories.

His unwillingness to overawe is most clear in the poem Gold. The rising Florida sun reflects – like gold – off a nearby lake. The poet’s east-facing room is filled with “golden light that might travel at dawn on the summer solstice the length of a passageway in a megalithic tomb.”

Several effusive stanzas later Collins writes “but the last thing I want to do is risk losing your confidence by appearing to lay it on too thick.”

You have to smile at that. You have to. Collins is a master. You say that to yourself while reading.

I was describing this book to a friend the next day. I mentioned a poem about his dog, titled Two Creatures, with a chilling insight at the end. She asked me to quote something. All I could remember was that Collins describes himself in one poem as “keeping an eye on things, whether they existed or not” and in another as “secretary of the interior.”

Much of this work was published previously in magazines and anthologies. Taken in this lovely little gray book, all were fresh again, and tasty and fun. The poem Grave has appeared in “Best American Poetry 2010" and “Best Spiritual Writing 2011.”

People who read poetry have known Billy Collins for years. If you haven’t met this poet, well, why not?


“Horoscopes for the Dead” by Billy Collins. Random House hard cover $24. ISBN 978-1-4000-6492-2.

About Billy Collins and his book tour...

Poemhunter has the text of many of Billy Collins’ poems and I don’t know how they deal with copyrights, but take a look...

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