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Encore! Billy Collins

Billy Collins is surely the most popular American poet since Robert Frost. We are pleased to offer an encore column of his wonderful work.
Billy Collins. “Poets are made to look at clouds, watch chipmunks. Someone has to keep as eye on these things.”

* * *

Last year this column did a piece on Billy Collins, and since then we have fielded a number of requests for another visit with Billy. This is more than understandable since he is surely the most popular American poet since Robert Frost. We are pleased to offer a new column of his wonderful work.

This introductory piece is typical. Collins calls it “November Morning.”

My appearance at the shore
has surprised this pair of wood ducks —
the wild-haired male, the smooth-headed hen.

They’ve left the cover of reeds
to begin their day together,
and I have an afternoon flight to Milwaukee.

It is characteristic of Collins to end a poem in an entirely different place than where it started or seemed to be going. He said that his poems tend to begin in Kansas and end in Oz.

Here is another poem with an effortless pivot at the end. It’s called “Lucky Cat.”

It’s a law as immutable as the ones
governing bodies in motion and bodies at rest
that a cat picked up will never stay
in the place where you choose to set it down.

I bet you’d be happy on the sofa
or this hassock or this knitted throw pillow
are a few examples of bets you are bound to lose.

The secret of winning, I have found,
is to never bet against the cat but on the cat
preferably with another human being
who, unlike the cat, is likely to be carrying money.

And I cannot think of a better time
to thank our cat for her obedience to that law
thus turning me into a consistent winner.

She’s a pure black one, quite impossible
to photograph and prone to disappearing
into the night or even into the thin shadows of noon.

Such an amorphous blob of blackness is she
the only way to tell she is approaching
is to notice the two little circles of her eyes

then only one circle when she is walking away
with her tail raised high– something like
the lantern signals of Paul Revere,
American silversmith, galloping patriot.

* * *

Another Collins specialty is finding a poem in the simplest of life’s exercises, such as determining what direction you should face in bed.

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theaters and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m out on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

Or here’s advice on how to eat a banana.

The day I learned that monkeys
as well as chimps, baboons, and gorillas
all peel their bananas from the other end
and use the end we peel from as a handle,
I immediately made the switch.

I wasted no time in passing this wisdom on
to family, friends, and even strangers
as I am now passing it on to you—
a tip from the top, the banana scoop,
the inside primate lowdown.

I promise: once you try it
you will never go back except
to regret the long error of your ways.
And if you do not believe me,
swing by the local zoo some afternoon.
with a banana in your pocket
and try peeling it in front of the cage
of an orangutan or capuchin monkey,
and as you begin, notice
how the monkeys stop what they’re doing,
if they are doing anything at all,
to nod their brotherly approval through the bars.

Better still, try it out on the big silverback gorilla.
See if you can get his dark eyes to brighten a bit
as the weight of him sits there in his cage
the same way Gertrude Stein is sitting
in that portrait of her she never liked by Picasso.

* * *

Billy Collins at his desk. “I like a real mess. I like to doodle, cross things out.”

* * *

Billy Collins taught poetry and creative writing for more than four decades and was greatly admired for his lively and approachable way of teaching. For instance, he said that writing science fiction was quite elementary: “We go there, they come here.” And when asked how to know when a poem should end, he shrugged: “It’s when I don’t want to say anymore, and you don’t want to hear any more.”

At some point in his teaching he would have discussed the process of redundancy, when a word would be stressed and then repeated to clarify or reinforce a meaning. You might talk about French-French as opposed to Canadian French. Quite off the wall, Collins imagined this scene following a funeral.

When you told me you needed a drink-drink
and not just a drink like a drink of water,

I steered you by the elbow into a corner bar,
which turned out to be a real bar-bar,

dim and nearly empty with little tables in the back
where we drank and agreed that the funeral

was a real funeral-funeral complete with a Mass,
incense, and tons of eulogies.

You know, I always considered Tom a real
friend-friend, you said, lifting your drink-drink

to your lips, and I agreed that Tom
was much more than just an ordinary friend.

We also concurred that Angela’s black dress
was elegant but not like elegant-elegant,

just elegant enough. And a few hours later
when the bartender brought yet another round

of whiskeys to our table in the corner
we recognized by his apron and his mighty girth

that he was more than just a bartender.
A true bartender-bartender was what he was

we decided, with a respectful clink-clink
of our drink-drinks, amber in a chink of afternoon light.

And may I note that only a real poet-poet could have concocted this scene.

* * *

Collins has described his target audience as people who studied and enjoyed poetry in high school and college and then lost touch. (Sounds a bit like what these “Anyone for Tennyson?” columns are all about).

In recent times (that is the last few years) he has developed a fascination for writing really short poems, sometimes only two or four lines long. He likes the challenge of putting largish observations into smallish spaces. Here are several Billy Collins miniatures.


When she runs in her sleep,
eyelids twitching,
Legs churning sideways on the floor,

I wonder if she’s chasing
a squirrel or being chased
by an angry farmer waving a rake.

D Major

A favorite
key signature
of pals

as it does,
two sharps.


At first,
I thought it meant
a really big piano.

New York Directions

It’s down
in the Village
and Bleekest.

The Exception

Whoever said
there’s a poem
lurking in the darkness
of every pencil
was not thinking of this one.

* * *

Billy Collins with Paul McCartney and writer George Plimpton celebrating at a New York book party in 2001. The next morning, half a mile away, the Twin Towers came down.

* * *

Billy Collins is not particularly known as a writer of love poetry, but he did do one piece that I find utterly charming. The title is also the start of the poem:

“I Love You.”

Early on, I noticed that you always say it
to each of your children
as you are getting off the phone with them
just as you never fail to say it
to me whenever we arrive at the end of a call.

It’s all new to this only child.
I never heard my parents say it,
at least not on such a regular basis,
nor did it ever occur to me to miss it.
To say I love you pretty much every day

would have seemed strangely obvious,
like saying I’m looking at you
when you are standing there looking at someone.
If my parents had started saying it
a lot, I would have started to worry about them.

Of course, I always like hearing it from you.
That is never a cause for concern.
The problem is I now find myself saying it back
if only because just saying good-bye
then hanging up would make me seem discourteous.

But like Bartleby, I would prefer not to
say it so often, would prefer instead to save it
for special occasions, like shouting it out as I leaped
into the red mouth of a volcano
with you standing helplessly on the smoking rim,

or while we are desperately clasping hands
before our plane plunges into the Gulf of Mexico,
which are only two of the examples I had in mind,
but enough, as it turns out, to make me
want to say it to you right now,
and what better place than in the final couplet
of a poem where, as every student knows, it really counts.

* * *

After years of teaching and poetizing, Collins lives comfortably today in Winter Park, Florida, which he calls “the quiet cardigan harbor of my life.”
To his delight, down the street there is a lawn sign reading “Dog Library” beside a pile of tennis balls and sticks.

* * *

VIDEO.  No one performs Billy Collins like Billy Collins, whose dry humor on stage is captivating. As one fellow poet has observed, “He puts the fun in profundity.” Here we first hear him presenting three poems to a rapt gathering: “The Revenant,” “Sonnet” and “Nostalgia.” Then we attend his appearance at the White House where he delights an often-stiff audience with “Forgetfulness” and his best-loved poem, “The Lanyard.”



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