Billy Collins is unlike most American poets in that he’s become a transcendent cultural figure — read by the masses yet still revered by the academy, an in-demand public speaker yet still a dogged craftsman. But Collins, 73, is like every other poet in one way: He began by writing dreck.
“I committed all the sins of bad poetry,” Collins said from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. “I wrote hundreds of bad poems. And sometimes that’s the only way to find out if you have good ones.”
Fledgling poets, like the students Collins will teach this month at the Summer Words retreat, can take heart that it took years of practice and failure for him to find the charming voice and deceptively simple style that has made him the most popular American poet since Robert Frost.
Readers know Collins for his masterful ability to use simple vocabulary and diction to forge poems of great depth and strength, for his sly wit and for his self-conscious humor (his sonnet, titled “Sonnet,” opens: “All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now.”)
One might be surprised, then, to hear him recall mining the thesaurus for impressive words and writing miserable, self-indulgent poems before discovering his endearing, conversational style and the simple language that’s become his trademark.
“I thought if you’re a writer you need to know all these enormous words that nobody else knows,” the former U.S. poet laureate said with a laugh, “and that’s what establishes you as superior to your readers. It took me awhile to realize that wasn’t working, that no one likes to be talked down to. … It was a matter of figuring out that it was OK to be clear but also to get a lot across that’s interesting.”
He piled up rejection letters from poetry journals, wrote in obscurity and gradually found his voice, eventually making his way into print in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. When he was in his 40s, he began publishing collections with university presses. After publication of his 1998 collection “Picnic, Lightning,” he became a frequent guest on popular National Public Radio programs like “Fresh Air” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” His profile very quickly changed as millions of listeners heard his work.
“If you’re used to giving a poetry reading in a church basement or in a bookstore with some folding chairs and 17 people there, 3 million people is going to be game-changing exposure,” he said.
As poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, he became the country’s champion of the form. In that role, the nation looked to Collins to voice its grief after the 9/11 attacks, which he did in “The Names,” a poem he read before a joint session of Congress in 2002 and finally published last year.
The duties of a public figure, he notes, don’t mesh with the private contemplation necessary to make poetry. During his term as poet laureate, when he was traveling and “being interviewed to death,” he says, he wrote very little. But since then, he’s been able to operate in both of those worlds — devoting time to speeches and panel discussions like the ones he’s scheduled for over the next week in Aspen but not at the expense of his writing.
“It’s sort of Jekyll and Hyde,” he said. “It’s really two different people. And I can pretty quickly go back to that private zone that the books come out of.”
His travels also have made good fodder for some of his work, as evidenced in his latest collection, 2013’s “Aimless Love.” Multiple new poems comment on human behavior aboard airplanes, along with the views of various parts of America from above. In “The Sandhill Cranes Nebraska,” he recalls how the locals lamented him arriving too late to see the migrating birds on the Platte River, just as the natives in Georgia wished he’d been there in time for azalea season, just like in Vermont they’d wished he’d seen the fall colors.
His humorous, observant touch makes for entertaining poetry. But his disarmingly casual tone also drives poems that address some thorny issues.
“Ode to a Desk Lamp,” for example, at first strikes you like gimmicky grade-school poetry — a melodramatic ode to a mundane object that opens, “Oh faithful light, under which I have written.” From that silly premise, it deftly opens up into a poem about the impermanence of relationships. The lamp stays with the narrator while other partners come and go. By the third stanza, the lamp is an emotionally charged inanimate object, like Keats’ Grecian urn or Williams’ bowl of cherries:
Has anyone been with me longer?
me without siblings or children,
you with your kindly 60 watt bulb,
you who have not died like others I knew,
you nestled in a bath towel
on the floorboards of my car
as I backed down the driveway of my marriage
and steered east then south down the two — then four — lane roads.
Asked about the lamp in the poem, Collins said with a laugh, “I’m looking at it right now, and it’s on!”
Poets can’t wait to be struck by inspiration, he added — they need to put pen to paper to find it. And often it comes from an unexpected place, like an old lamp.
“Poems come out of the act of writing,” he said. “You have to sit down and write anything, and just out of boredom you end up writing about something better than that. … If I start with a desk lamp, I’m certainly going to end up with more than a desk lamp.”
Of course, there have been other U.S. poet laureates and countless others who’ve written in the vernacular. But none have crossed over into the mainstream as Collins has in the 21st century, gracing best-seller lists and commanding crowds at events like the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival.
“I can’t account for it,” he said. “As a younger poet, and even in my 30s and into my 40s, I thought, ‘If I can get a book out with a respected university press, and if that sold 2,000 copies, then I could say, “I am a poet. I’m published. I’m read,” and that would be enough.’ So all of this is quite unexpected.”
Then, in a typically self-effacing admission, he added, “At the same time, I’m an only child, so I really have an appetite for attention, and I don’t mind having a monopoly on attention.”
Though he’s become one of the most sought-after poetry teachers available, Collins has never taken a poetry workshop himself. When he began writing seriously, in the 1960s, there weren’t that many around, he notes.
“I’m still convinced you can do it alone,” he said. “The real workshop is you reading other writers, not sitting around a table and talking about it. But, having said that, there is now a community of writers, and a lot of people profit by it and learn and are encouraged by it.”
Collins’ work also unapologetically breaks academic rules of poetry. He often takes up poetry itself as a subject, a habit that most poetry instructors would have tried to break had Collins been in their classes. In “The Great American Poem,” for instance, he riffs on the narrative contrast between novels and verse, writing, “But this is a poem / and the only characters here are you and I / alone in an imaginary room / which will disappear after a few more lines.”
“It’s a big no-no,” he admitted. “You’re always told to avoid writing poems about poetry. But I find it irresistible because I’m still very self-conscious about being a poet.”
In the classroom, Collins aims to get a sense for students’ tastes and to help them discover work that might help them improve their own.
“I don’t want to be Mr. Goodwrench — arranging their poems or making their poems sound like my poems, which is not the point,” he said. “I don’t know how to write your poems; only you can write your poems. But we can talk about form and the shape of the poem on the page and that kind of thing. And one of the things I try to do is act like matchmaker and put younger and aspiring poets together with established poets.”
The friendly spirit of a literary gathering like Summer Words, where workshops are supplemented with evening events and author panels, he says, also can be helpful for students who might have a skewed view of the literary world.
“So many people at the festival are aspiring writers,” he said. “It’s good for them to see that at least some writers get along with each other — that it’s not exactly the viper pit that it’s often characterized to be.”