Stride Magazine -


by Billy Collins
120pp, £7.95, Picador)
Billy Collins, 11th Poet Laureate of the USA, is a phenomenon. Sales of his poetry, both in hardback and paperback, have by poetry-publishing standards been enormous; a contractual dispute between publishers concerning his work made the front page of the New York Times; he is billed as ‘one of the world’s most popular poets’, with plaudits coming at him from all sides. For Carol Ann Duffy he is ‘one of my favourite poets in the world’; Michael Donaghy is ready to ‘follow this man’s mind anywhere’; John Updike tells us that Collins ‘writes lovely poems.’ There is a plethora of websites devoted to him offering up ecstasies of praise.

What is it about his poems that elicits such rhapsodic reactions? They are, after all, low-key performances, the meditations (at times one has the feeling of parodies of stream-of-consciousness) of an unassuming man, writing about himself and his handling of the inconsequentialities of a relatively comfortable bourgeois life. At first reading the poems feel as though there is a deliberate avoidance of stylistic distinction (who is he like? who is he obviously different from?); they read easily, are indisputably accessible (an unsympathetic critic might complain that nothing much happens in them); they are (deceptively) undemanding, playing down any idea of ‘importance’ (again an unsympathetic critic might say the poems are baggy, superficial); for the most part they eschew angst, preferring pleasure and comfort to metaphysical soul-searching; they are not in any way histrionic or given to rhetorical flourish; they are permeated with a sly ironic humour, not there to subvert what is being said and thought but protect it by cunningly exposing an empathetic sort of vulnerability. It also ensures that the poems contain what has been called ‘a firm centre of gravity’.

In a word, Collins is a comfortable poet.

One of the functions of poetry has always been to be consolatory ­ something modern poetry has not generally been good at, though the idea remains vestigially there in the popular imagination, as anyone who has judged a poetry competition will readily confirm. I can imagine Collins giving a public reading similar to those in which the late Adrian Henri unpacked his ‘golden oldies’ and indulged his audience in a nostalgia for the simplified life. This is not meant as a snooty remark: such wish-fulfilment is deeply rooted in all of us and perhaps, given their history, is more ready to be tapped in the American psyche. In this aspect of his writing Collins is a one-of-us poet. And the reader is part of his equation. Though he writes about himself and the peculiarities of his particular life-style, he clearly gives the impression of not writing for
himself. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams’ ‘Share with us, /share with us ­ it will be money/in your pockets.’ The first poem in this collection acts as a sort of prologue and addresses the reader directly. Who is this reader? I imagine it to be simply anyone reading or listening. It is Mandelstam’s ‘first reader’ for whom all poems are written; it is not those fellow-practitioners who provide most of us who write with what John Lucas, in a fine essay on Ivor Gurney, called ‘tough, reliable criticism’. Collins is on record as saying he does not consult anyone while involved in the processes of writing. And the poems do give that impression: they are what they are and exist outside of criticism. Collins faces his reality in his own way. This is part of their appeal: they have no claim on perfection; give no impression of having been polished by workshop processes. The casual air they promote is an analogue of human imperfection. It is this that helps readers who have previously felt themselves excluded from poetry to feel they are being invited in to a world they find companionable, even playful:

       and there was something else I wanted to tell you,

       something about the warm orange light
       in the windows of the house,
       but now I am wondering if you are even listening

       and why I bother to tell you these things
       that will never make a difference,
       flecks of ash, tiny chips of ice.

       But this is all I want to do ­
       tell you that up in the woods
       a few night birds were calling,

       the grass was cold on my bare feet,
       and at that point, the moon,
       looking like the top of Shakespeare’s

       famous forehead,
       appeared, quite unexpectedly,
       illuminating a band of moving clouds.
              [from ‘Night Letter to the Reader’]

Many of Collins’ poems end like this, haiku-fashion, stimulating the response of a smile, the recognition (like Zen satori ­ the appearance of ‘awakening’ into the instant) that a moment in time has been caught on the wing. It is in this way the poems ‘communicate’, hoping to bring us into a state of alive-ness…another of the functions of poetry, that of renewing our tired vision of the actual, providing images and perceptions that light up the mundane. For Collins is par excellence the poet of the quotidian. He puts ‘I’ back at the still point of the turning world. In this sense he is an antidote ­ at a time criticism seems to be pushing literature aside ­ to modern critical approaches to writing which question the supposed stability of ‘I’. Restoring ‘I’, Collins is doing something consolatory…as he is in reminding us of the actual day-to-day experiences we all go through: getting up in the middle of the night, doodling, driving, taking train journeys, watching people, not being able to get a song out of one’s head, walking about aimlessly, feeling affections for odd things, welcoming the serendipitous and the coincidental, making unexpected discoveries, wondering whether it is better to do nothing than perform actions, having a bath, going on holiday, staring at the ceiling (something poets have to do a lot of), being of an age when you start automatically to read obituaries, and so on. Collins illuminates the ordinary and makes it luminous.

The poems have the feeling of jazz improvisation…of the instant, giving the impression of making it up as you go along, making surprising discoveries and being concentratedly alive in the process. The poems are only human after all. And this means they are given to reassuring mood shifts, vacillations, ambivalences…what the poet calls ‘this mix of love and fear’. Love mostly wins out. The poems in this collection are eager to eradicate discomfort or at least minimise it. This too is part of their appeal: the popular view of poetry has for long been that it is either ‘too difficult’ or ‘too miserable’. Collins shifts the centre of gravity back, wanting us to count our blessings and find things to rejoice in:

       …I should not have to remind you
       that little time is given here
       to rest on a wayside bench,
       to stop and bend to the wildflowers,
       or to study a bird on a branch ­
              [from ‘The Parade’]

As he says in ‘Ignorance’

       ….I am inside my own head
       like a tiny homunculus,
       a creature so excited over his naked existence
       that he scurries all day
       from one eye socket to the other
       just to see what scenes are unfolding before me,
       what streets, what pastures,

       And to think that just two hours ago
       I was as sour as Samuel Johnson
       with a few bad sherries in him,
       quarrelling in a corner of the Rat and Parrot,
       full of scorn for the impertinence of men,
       the inconstancy of women.

       And to think further that I have no idea
       what might have uplifted me,
       unless it was when I first opened
       the front door to look at the sky
       so extensive and burdened with snow,
       or was it this morning
       when I walked along the reservoir?

       Was it when the dog
       scared up some ducks off the water
       and I stopped to watch them flapping low
       over the frozen surface,
       and I counted them in flight,
       all seven ­ the leader and the six scurrying behind.

He is a ‘devotee of things ­/their biggest fan, you might say’, a poet who rejoices in ‘the plentiful imagery of the world’, tipsy with gratitude.

              © Matt Simpson 2003