Collins, Billy 1941–
Collins, Billy 1941–
PERSONAL: Born March 22, 1941, in New York, NY; son of William S. (an electrician) and Katherine M. (a nurse) Collins; married 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.
ADDRESSES: Home—Somers, NY. Agent—Chris Calhoun, Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleeker St., New York, NY 10012.
CAREER: Lehman College, City University of New York, Bronx, professor, then distinguished professor of English, 1971–. Writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College. Performs poetry readings. Appears in video On the Road with the Poet Laureate, 2004.
AWARDS, HONORS: Poetry fellow, New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and Guggenheim Foundation; Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin Award, Oscar Blumenthal Award, and Levinson Prize, all for poetry; appointed Literary Lion by New York Public Library; National Poetry Series competition winner, 1990, for "Questions about Angels"; U.S. poet laureate, 2001–03.
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.
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.
Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
Nine Horses, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
(Editor and author of introduction) Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, [New York, NY], 2003.
Contributor of poetry to university publications and journals, including Flying Faucet Review and Oink.
SIDELIGHTS: Billy Collins is an American poet who has earned the respect of high school students and such poets such as Edward Hirsch and Richard Howard. With fans such as John Updike and a legion of 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," observed Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Collins 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," described Weber, who declared: "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."
The poetry in Questions about Angels won Collins the 1990 National Poetry Series competition. Following this honor, the work—not his first—was published by mainstream publisher Morrow. In a review of the volume, a Publishers Weekly contributor applauded the poet's "strange and wonderful [images]" but believed that his poems—which are often "constricted by the novelty of a unifying metaphor"—"rarely induce an emotional reaction." In contrast, reviews of Collins' subsequent work have praised his ability to connect with readers. Assessing Picnic, Lightning, Booklist contributor Donna Seaman commented that "the warmth of his voice emanates from his instinct for pleasure and his propensity toward humor." John Taylor, writing in Poetry, lauded the poet's skill and style, noting 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," according to Taylor, who believed that "a funny-sad ambience characterizes his best work." Taylor also noted, "Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths."
Collins, who, as a poet, received a nearly unprecedented six-figure deal from Random House for his next three books, experienced a roadblock in the delivery of Sailing around the Room: New and Selected Poems. In a roundabout way, his popularity actually impeded the re-lease of the 2000 publication. Due to the continued economic profitability of the poetry collections Collins published through the University of Pittsburgh Press—titles that include The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning—the college press was extremely resistant to grant Random House the rights to the "selected poems" the New York-based publishing house was requesting for inclusion in Sailing around the Room. The battle between Random House and the University of Pittsburgh Press was cited in the New York Times by Weber, who expressed amazement that a university press would "unduly stand in the way of an author's success—and wishes."
Weber's article quoted poetry editor/poet 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." He also noted, "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." Collins further related to Weber: "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."
In 2002, Collins's fans who were anxiously awaiting his next collection of poems were finally satisfied when Nine Horses: Poems found its way to book stores. Prior to the volume's publication, Collins was named the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2001–2003 and, according to William Pratt writing in World Literature Today, "with this slim, impressive ninth volume of poetry, he shows that he deserves the honor." Pratt went on to note of Collins that "His 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." Focusing on ordinary activities, these poems include ruminations on such topics as traveling by train, listening to jazz on the radio, and lying on the beach. Collins also tackles more unusual circumstances, such as dying and discovering that when you get to heaven you have to write a poem about what you've found there.
Although immensely popular and well received by many critics, not everyone was overjoyed with Nine Horses. In a review for New Criterion, William Logan called Collins "a poet who doesn't respect his art enough to take it seriously." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman, however, praised the volume of poems, noting that "Collins is a connoisseur of muted moments and a coiner of whimsical yet philosophical revelations."
Collins's popularity has also led to the 2004 video, On the Road with the Poet Laureate, in which, as described by Cliff Glaviano in Library Journal, he "reads from his poetry, talks about poetry in his home office, and drives on the interstate highway." Glaviano added, "In this most fascinating film, Collins's readings bring alive the magic of poetry." In another poetry-related project, Collins has attempted to foster a wider appreciation of poetry through an online venture he started in 2002 called Poetry 180. Designed to encourage high school students to further appreciate and enjoy poetry, the Poetry 180 Web site contains 180 poems selected by Collins for each day of the school year, the focus on contemporary American poets whose work students would find accessible. Commenting in Reading Today, Collins noted, "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." Collins has supplemented his Internet venture by editing a collection of poems titled Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Picnic, Lightning, p. 1086; November 1, 1998, p. 483; December 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Nine Horses, p. 642.
Commonweal, January 11, 2002, Richard Alleva, "A Major Minor Poet: Billy Collins Isn't Just Funny," p. 21.
Library Journal, June 15, 1991, Ellen Kaufman, review of Questions about Angels, p. 81; February 15, 2004, Cliff Glaviano, review of On the Road with the Poet Laureate, p. 177.
Mother Jones, March-April, 2002, Laura Secor, "Billy Collins: Mischievous Laureate," p. 84.
New Criterion, December, 2003, William Logan, review of Nine Horses, p. 85.
New York Times, December 19, 1999, Bruce Weber, "On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits Roadblock," p. 1.
North American Review, November-December, 2003, Vincente F. Gotera, review of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, p. 58.
Poetry, January, 1989, p. 232; February, 1992, p. 282; February, 2000, John Taylor, review of Picnic, Lightning and The Art of Drowning, p. 273.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, review of Questions about Angels, p. 59.
Reading Today, February-March, 2002, "U.S. Poet Laureate Launches New Project," p. 16.
U.S. News & World Report, October 28, 2002, Marc Silver, "Even He Wrote Teen-Angst Poems" (interview), p. 7.
World Literature Today, April-June, 2003, William Pratt, review of Nine Horses, p. 104.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/ (June 22, 2001), "Billy Collins."
Poetry 180 Web site, http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/ (August 10, 2004).