Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Random House Audio, 2005; $19.95
The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins. Random House, 2005; $22.95; 112 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space: In this exclusive audio publishing event, Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, shares an evening of his poetry in a benefit reading. Often compared to Robert Frost, his poetry has been embraced by people of all ages and backgrounds, and his readings are most often standing room only. Performed by the author at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City, Billy Collins reads 24 of his poems, including "Dharma" -- a spiritual yet humbling ode to man's best friend; "The Lanyard" -- an amusing recollection about the popular, if not pointless, summer-camp pastime; and "Consolation" -- a tongue-in-cheek reflection of a cancelled European trip, and the benefits of staying home instead. In addition to the poetry readings, Collins also spends some time in a brief question-and-answer session where he reflects on what makes good poetry, his own process of reaching his audiences as a poet, the success of his Poetry 180 programs in schools nationwide, and an amusing sidebar on his memories growing up as an only child. At times pensive and sardonic, amusing and subtly sarcastic, Billy Collins Live celebrates both the simple and the complex in a language that appeals to all.
The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems: Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America's two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed.
Like the present book's title, Collins's poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony -- "Poetry speaks to all people, it is said, but here I would like to address / only those in my own time zone" -- but also with quiet observation, intense wonder, and a reverence for the every day -- "The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows. / They are at their windows in every section of the tangerine of earth -- the Chinese poets looking up at the moon, / the American poets gazing out / at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise."
Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn't have to be obscure or incomprehensible, qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with most "serious" poetry -- "By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet."
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Collins's...light touch, his self-deprecating pathos, and his unerring sense of his audience (nothing too difficult, but nothing too lowbrow) explain much of his popularity and remain evident in this eighth collection.... The dominant note, however, is a gentle sadness, accomplished with care and skill.
Booklist : Collins is one of the most popular and most disarming of poets. He draws you close with his swinging lines, twirling metaphors, homey imagery, and coy self-deprecation. But he is as likely to be hiding a cudgel behind his back as a bouquet of flowers.... Skeptical of love and scornful of pretension, Collins is breathtaking in his appreciation of the earth's beauty and the precious daily routines that define life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Billy Collins is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Nine Horses, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Questions About Angels, The Art Of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. A distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of New York State.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I said to Billy Collins, about his poem "Revenant," that when he read it, the audience laughed. "Laughed about a poem about a dead dog.""Well, if you heard me read it..." Mr. Collins was speaking from his home in Northern Westchester County.
"I did hear you read it."
"That's right, but they were laughing like crying." Mr. Collins laughed. "Insensitive New Yorkers."
"How long does it take you to drive to work?" (Mr. Collins for many years taught in the Bronx at Lehman College.)
"Well, if I did work, it would take about 50 minutes. But I stopped teaching."
"Do you think people can be taught to write poetry?"
"You can't really teach them. You can encourage them; you can point out a few craft things, just as a good editor would. You can encourage them to read; you can try to custom-design a reading list for them so that they will read the right poets -- part of being a good teacher of writing is second-guessing what writers would be good for a student to read. You try to find a writer that will make the student jealous and envious enough to start imitating that writer.
"There are two things that you can't teach -- one is rhythm. Rhythm is impossible to teach. It's like dancing. Either you have it or you don't have it. Some people have a good sense of verbal rhythm and other people are tone deaf. The other thing you can't teach is metaphor.
"You can't teach anyone to make interesting connections between things and, in fact, it's even more basic than that. You can't get anyone interested in doing that if they're not interested in doing that."
"'In a true piece of wit, all things must be, /Yet all things there agree,'" I quoted from Abraham Cowley's "Ode to Wit," lines more familiar through their use by Eliot in "Andrew Marvell."
"More students should read that line. If they don't have a sense of verbal rhythm and they have no interest in making metaphorical connections, then they probably should get out of the poetry game. So that's what can and can't be taught."