In February, 1999 I was sitting in a car park with Naomi Jaffa when she asked me what I thought of the poetry of Billy Collins. My mind went a complete blank.
My general policy on these occasions is a) to own up, even if it means looking like an idiot and b) only lie when you are certain you can get away with it, which in my case is never because I am a terrible liar. Plus Naomi knows everything, including when I am lying, so there seemed little point in doing so.
I looked her in the eye and said ‘Who?’
After she had stopped shouting at me for being so poorly read she tossed me a book to look at while she went off to look for a parking meter.
I’m not going to lie to you, the poems didn’t really do much for me.
I realise this is the poetry equivalent of Batemanesque embarrassment, but it is the truth, and as Auden says somewhere we should always be honest even if it means revealing prejudices and opinions which are laughable.
Without wishing to make excuses, I am not sure what combination of other factors came into play here: fear of getting it wrong, preoccupation with work, tiredness…
Two or three years later I am pleased to say this situation was rectified by Naomi sending me a CD of Collins reading his work, some of it live in front of an audience, plus a list of books which I absolutely had to buy right away.
Listening to the poems being read changed everything, not least because the voice appeared to belong to Kevin Spacey! I stuck my finger in the wind and plumped that morning for The Art of Drowning on Amazon. (It’s still my favourite of Collins’s books, probably because it is the first of his I bought. I am like that with first books.)
Now with a relaxed, bemused, wry, self-deprecating version of Collins’s voice in my head I read the poems quickly, then slowly, then slowly again, savouring their attention to everyday detail, grateful at last for mentions in poetry of making a tape for your decorator and the invention of the Saxophone. The best of the poems seemed to concern themselves with the passing of time (‘Days’, ‘Fiftieth Birthday Eve’, ‘Death Beds’, ‘Tuesday, June 4, 1991’, ‘On Turning Ten’) which were neither mawkish nor sentimental and which seemed to carry the weightiness of their subject matter rather as one would a freshly baked soufflé into a room of waiting guests.
This is to say below their conversational exterior the poems were serious, but showed no anxiety of being burdened by anything more than delight.
Like a lot of people around that time, I quickly set about buying everything by Collins I could get my hands on. Overnight I became his biggest fan.
I am convinced that this uncanny combination of seriousness and lightness is what makes his poems so readable and returnable-to. They share with Jaan Kaplinski’s poetry the unusual distinction of being the only poems I was able to read during my treatment for cancer in 2006. As I say in my memoir of that time, I can’t think of poems I more enjoy being inside of while I am reading them.
I could have chosen any number of Collins’s poems for my Lifesaving Poems series. I chose ‘Morning’ because it seems to merge concern for the passage of time with airy relish for living. I think Yeats called this the capacity to hold in tension both reality and justice. Not many poems do this while ‘buzzing around the house on espresso’.