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’.
You can read and listen to the poem here, and more about Collins here.
If you liked this post, why not try Mark Strand’s ‘A Morning’ or Piotr Sommer’s ‘Morning on Earth’
Thanks Anthony, I like that poem, and I don’t recall reading it.
Yes Collins is an excellent reader of his work, and Kevin Spacey is a spot-on comparison: wry, laconic, a very American drollness. I first heard him at the Galway Cúirt festival (a good few years ago now), where he read with CA Duffy, another reader with a great sense of comic timing. In fact they were like a perfectly matched pair of stand-up comedians.
Interesting that Collins was one of the only two poets you could read while suffering from cancer. I think I can understand why that ‘combination of seriousness and lightness’ worked for you. Wiki includes Collins in its entry on ‘light verse’, but I don’t believe his poems are exclusively ‘light’. Rather, they work best when they wear their tragedy as lightly as their comedy. And the latter can be overdone, as with his silly stage-Irish parody of Heaney.
I imagine part of the reason for Collins’ popularity is that he is a marvelous observational poet, an archivist of the odd quirks of human behaviour, as in his poem The Death Of The Hat, which is one of my favourites:
Hi Mark. So pleased you liked this one. And that you have got to hear him read esp with CAD. Good double act I’m sure. Death of the Hat is a great exemplar of what you are saying, practically snatching the rug out from under you like one of those old music hall entertainers pulling a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the crockery. You love to see it happen, you don’t believe it will happen, and when it does it takes your breath away. A class act.
As ever with thanks
Thank you for this, Anthony, and to Mark for his lovely comment.
Collins’ work brought new life to poetry in the U.S. He is much loved here among many who would not have thought before of poetry as somethng to enjoy, and especially loved by those of us who have always loved it.
I have no trouble at all imaging Billy Collins and his poetry as a comfort during your days with cancer. “Droll” is the right word for his reading and his perspective on the large and small bits of life. I often pair his work with Raymond Carver in a class I call “The Art of the Ordinary.” Collins can make us laugh and can stop our hearts with love at the same time. Perhaps on the CD you heard him read “The Lanyard.” It’s so funny and beautiful I hurt when I hear it – but in the best of all possible ways. Here’s the text. http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/the_lanyard.html
Hi Molly, I like the sound of that course/class. Right up my street. I did not know the Lanyard, so thank you for pointing me to it. I think right until the last line, the last word even, he keeps you guessing as to the lanyard’s true worth, or lack of it. Thanks so much again