Born March 22, 1941, in New York, NY; son of William S. (an electrician) and Katherine M. (a nurse) Collins; married; wife's name, Diane (an architect), January 21, 1979. Education: College of the Holy Cross, B.A., 1963; University of California, Riverside, Ph.D. (romantic poetry), 1971. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz music.
Home— Somers, NY. Agent— Chris Calhoun, Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleeker St., New York, NY 10012.
Poetry fellow, New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and Guggenheim Foundation; Bess Hokin Award, Oscar Blumenthal Award, and Levinson Prize, all from Poetry; appointed "Literary Lion" by New York Public Library; winner of National Poetry Series competition, 1990, for "Questions about Angels"; named eleventh U.S. poet laureate, 2001-03; Mark Twain Award for humorous poetry, Poetry Foundation, 2004.
Pokerface (limited edition), Kenmore, 1977.
Video Poems, Applezaba (Long Beach, CA), 1980.
The Apple That Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1988.
Questions about Angels, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
Picnic, Lightning, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1998.
Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, Picador (London, England), 2000.
Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
Nine Horses: Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of poetry to university publications and journals, including Flying Faucet Review and Oink.
The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor) Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
(Editor) 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Daddy's Little Boy (children's book), illustrated by Maggie Kneen, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
When Billy Collins received a call from Librarian of Congress James Billington offering him the post of U.S poet laureate, it never occurred to Collins that he could decline the offer. "I just assumed I was being called up, as though I'd been sitting on the bench of poetry all my life and the coach says, 'Get in there, Collins,'" he told a Newsweek contributor. With fans such as John Updike and many National Public Radio listeners, Collins has demonstrated a skill for "building a rare bridge of admiration for his work between serious literary fold and poetry novitiates," according to Bruce Weber, writing in the New York Times. Collins served as poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, during which time he introduced Poetry 180, a Web site designed to encourage an interest in poetry in American high schools. Collins is the author of several popular books of poetry, including Questions about Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Sailing Alone around the Room. "Collins' poetry is widely accessible," Billington told a contributor for CNN.com. "He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist." Collins also gives commanding poetry readings, according to Weber, who complimented the poet's ability to hold the interest of a high school crowd. The poet "read[s] in a voice that leavens gravitas with a hint of mischief," explained Weber, the critic further declaring: "It can be argued that with his books selling briskly and his readings packing them in, Mr. Collins is the most popular poet in America."
An Early Introduction to Poetry
Collins was born in 1941, in New York City's French Hospital, where poet William Carlos Williams was once on staff. Both his father, an electrician from a large Irish-Catholic family, and his mother, a nurse, were in their forties when they had Collins, their only child. Collins was raised in Queens until he was in junior high school and his father became a prosperous insurance broker. The family then moved to affluent Westchester County.
According to Washington Post contributor Linton Weeks, Collins has always wanted to be a writer. "I liked the whole image of it," he told Weeks. Collins wrote his first poem when he was twelve years old, and he eventually served on his high school's literary magazine. A turning point in his budding literary career came when his father started bringing home copies of the journal Poetry. "I looked into the magazine, and it was like looking into Chapman's Homer," Collins recalled to Catherine Barnett in Teachers & Writers. "The poems sounded cool to me—they sounded like they were talking, the imagery was fresh. They mentioned cars! I remember reading a poem by Thom Gunn about Elvis Presley and that was a real mindblower because I didn't know you could write poems about Elvis Presley. I thought there was poetry—what you read in class, you read 'Hiawatha' in class—and then when you left class there was Elvis. I didn't see them together until I read that poem."
Collins earned a bachelor's degree from Holy Cross College and a Ph.D. in romantic poetry at the University of California, Riverside. He remained on the West Coast intending to be a "proto-beatnik and to write bad Ferlinghetti," as he told Weeks. Still far from developing his own style, he continued, "I took a little bit of everything." Like many poets, Collins told a Newsweek interviewer, he began by thinking there was no room for humor in poetry. "My bad poems were bad in the beginning because they were emotionally heavy, brooding, then profound and ponderous." He did eventually lighten up and find his own way, he told Weeks: "It wasn't until I was in my forties that I started writing poems it seems only I could have written."
Work Gains Recognition
In the 1970s Collins sold short poems, inspired by the marijuana culture of the time, to Rolling Stone for $35 each. He started teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx in 1970, and in 1977 he married Diane Olbright. Collins also produced his first book of poetry, titled Pokerface, in 1977. He published sparingly during the next decade, however: Video Poems appeared in 1980, and The Apple That Astonished Paris saw print in 1988.
The manuscript for Questions about Angels won Collins the 1990 National Poetry Series competition. Following this honor, the work was published by Morrow. In a review of the volume, a Publishers Weekly critic applauded the poet's "strange and wonderful" images, but felt that the poems "rarely induce an emotional reaction." In contrast, reviews of Collins' more recent work have praised his ability to connect with readers. Assessing Picnic, Lightning, Booklist contributor Donna Seaman observed that "the warmth of his voice emanates from his instinct for pleasure and his propensity toward humor." Discussing Picnic, Lightning and its predecessor, The Art of Drowning, John Taylor lauded the poet's skill and style, remarking that "Collins helps us feel the mystery of being alive." The poet has "a charming mixture of irony, wit, musing, and tenderness for the everyday," explained Taylor, the critic adding that "a funny-sad ambience characterizes his best work."Collins received a nearly unprecedented six-figure deal from Random House for his next three books, beginning with the 2001 title Sailing around the Room: New and Selected Poems. "There is nothing in Billy Collins's poetry that is ever anything but commendable, fluent, and accomplished," wrote Harriet Zinnes in the Hollins Critic. Reviewing Sailing around the Room in Poetry, Dennis O'Driscoll noted: "Collins's wry ruminations and wittily absurd commentaries can lend life to the most banal topics: the marginal marks defacing library books, a visit to the local garage for car repairs, a chronically barking dog." In his New York Times article, Weber quoted poet and editor Richard Howard, who said of Collins, "He has a remarkably American voice . . . that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity besides, reaching very far into what verse can do." Collins described himself to Weber as "reader conscious," stating, "I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong." Asked by Weber if there was a theme to his work, Collins responded, "I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day. To the left and right there are an amazing set of distractions that we usually can't afford to follow. But the poet is willing to stop anywhere."
The Laureate Years
Collins was named the eleventh U.S. poet laureate on June 21, 2001. In 2002 he was appointed to a second
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term, continuing through 2003. Asked what he hoped to accomplish as laureate, Collins told Laura Secor in Mother Jones, "Well, there is always a temptation just to go to Washington and sit in this office and blow smoke rings for a year while I look out at the Capitol. But because of the excessive activism of my predecessors, it seems that an obligation falls my way to get out and light poetry bonfires and to spread the word of poetry." Like the laureates before him, including Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and Rita Dove, Collins used the position to boost an awareness of poetry, but he had a special audience in mind: high school students. "Probably behind most fanaticisms there's some autobiographical drive," Collins told Barnett in Teachers & Writers. "I'm probably trying to rectify in some way what happened to me—and presumably to many others—in high school. I got interested in poetry in high school, but I found the atmosphere inimical to my interest."Collins developed Poetry 180, a Web site containing the text of 180 poems, written primarily by contemporary American poets. "The idea behind Poetry 180 is simple—to have a poem read each day to the student bodies of American high schools across the country," Collins was quoted as saying on the Library of Congress Web site. "Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience." The selection of poems was of primary importance to Collins. As he told Barnett, "Clearly the poems have to be short, especially if you're in high school and looking out the window. I made an effort to choose poems that will get their attention because I know adolescent attention is a difficult fish to catch." Poetry 180 has been used in schools across the United States, as well as in Australia, Canada, and the Philippines, and the poems have been collected in two volumes: Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day.
While serving as poet laureate, Collins published Nine Horses: Poems. According to Booklist critic Donna Seaman, the poet "is a connoisseur of muted moments and a coiner of whimsical yet philosophical revelations." Writing in World Literature Today, William Pratt stated that Collins's "poems contain lines that are worthy of quotation, as is true of few collections of poems these days, and he invents fresh metaphors, which Aristotle long ago established as the measure of poetry, all drawn from everyday experience rather than from fantasies or dreams. Moreover, his poems generate surprise, inviting the reader to anticipate each new one as if it might be the best one yet."
Though he is the poet of a nation, wrote New Republic critic Adam Kirsch, Collins's ideal reader is "by no means the man on the street." The person most apt to appreciate Collins's work is well-educated and well-read enough, Kirsch suggested, to be able to recognize the wide range of references in Collins's work to William Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Izaak Walton, Nick Adams, and Emma Bovary. On the other hand, Kirsch continued, "The most obvious thing to say about Collins's poetry is that it is funny, in an accessible and immediately familiar way. But his true poetic gift is something more than a sense of humor; it is a genuine, if often debased, wit." Weeks put it succinctly: "Here's what the Bronx Bard does," he wrote. "He takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked."
If you enjoy the works of Billy Collins
If you enjoy the works of Billy Collins, you may also want to check out the following books:
Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III, 1976.
Stephen Dunn, Between Angels, 1989.
Poetry, Collins told Patrick T. Reardon in the Chicago Tribune, gives him "a kind of pleasure that's unavailable anywhere in the world. That pleasure is a mix of feeling, thought and language. A poem is a conscious effort to create that mix, to use language almost to fuse thought and feeling together. The perfect blend is the pleasure for me—the marriage of thought and feeling."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Poetry for Students, Volume 18, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Book, September, 2001, Stephen Whited, "Close Examination," p. 26.
Booklist, March 1, 1998, p. 1086; November 1, 1998, p. 483; August 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems, p. 2078; December 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Nine Horses: Poems, p. 642.
Chicago Tribune, November 13, 2001, Patrick T. Reardon, "The Ballad of Billy Collins: Can the New Poet Laureate Pump New Life into the State of Verse?"
Commonweal, January 11, 2002, Richard Alleva, "A Major Minor Poet: Billy Collins Isn't Just Funny," p. 21.
Hollins Critic, June, 2002, Harriet Zinnes, review of Sailing Alone around the Room, p. 19.
Kliatt, March, 2003, James Beschta, review of Sailing Alone around the Room, p. 38; July, 2003, James Beschta, review of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, p. 36; January, 2004, Daniel Levinson, review of Nine Horses, p. 26.
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Library Journal, June 15, 1991, p. 81; September 1, 2001, Tim Gavin, review of Sailing Alone around the Room, p. 184; February 15, 2004, Cliff Glaviano, review of Billy Collins: On the Road with the Poet Laureate (video review), p. 177.
Mother Jones, March-April, 2002, Laura Secor, "Billy Collins: Mischievous Laureate," pp. 84-85.
New Criterion, December, 2003, William Logan, "Out on the Lawn," review of Nine Horses, p. 85.
New Republic, October 29, 2001, Adam Kirsch, "Over Easy," p. 38.
Newsweek, July 9, 2001, "Pushing Poetry to Lighten Up—and Brighten Up," p. 58.
New York Times, December 19, 1999.
New York Times Book Review, September 23, 2001, "Stand-up Poet: A Collection of the Hospitable, and Humorous, Verse of Billy Collins," review of Sailing Alone around the Room, p. 10.
Poetry, January, 1989, p. 232; February, 1992, p. 282; February, 2000, p. 273; April, 2002, Dennis O'Driscoll, review of Sailing Alone around the Room, pp. 32-40.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, p. 59; April 26, 2004, review of Daddy's Little Boy, pp. 68-69.
Reading Today, February-March, 2002, "U.S. Poet Laureate Launches New Project," p. 16.
School Library Journal, December, 2001, Barbara A. Genco, review of Sailing Alone around the Room, pp. 56-57; June, 2004, Rachel G. Payne, review of Daddy's Little Boy, p. 125.
Southern Review, winter, 2002, Jeredith Merrin, "Art over Easy," pp. 202-215.
Teachers & Writers, March-April, 2002, Catherine Barnett, "The Laureate and the Loudspeaker."
U.S. News & World Report, October 28, 2002, Marc Silver, "Even He Wrote Teen-angst Poems," p. 7.
Washington Post, November 28, 2001, p. C1.
World Literature Today, April-June, 2003, William Pratt, review of Nine Horses, p. 104.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (February 20, 2005), "Billy Collins."
Billy Collins Web site,http://www.bigsnap.com/billy.html/ (February 20, 2005).
CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/ (June 22, 2001), "Billy Collins."
Poetry 180 Web site,http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/ (February 18, 2004).
Billy Collins: On the Road with the Poet Laureate (video), 2003.*