Only America could produce a poet laureate whose first name — as he prefers it — is “Billy.” Billy the Kid comes to mind, but also some overstimulated tyke running amok on a playground. (“Billy!! Billy!! Get off those monkey bars!!”) Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-03) who will be reading his poetry at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington on Aug. 7, sweeps the reader along like that kid on the playground. It is with a child-like pleasure that the reader follows him into the ether as his lines end and pick up on the other side. But it is also deceptive. “On Turning Ten,” for example, is a beautiful poem about childhood’s end that, without line breaks reads like prose, “This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself as I walk through the universe in my sneakers. It is time to say goodbye to my imaginary friends.” But is it? At age ten? God, I hope not.
Collins is a wit who lulls readers with humor while unveiling deeper truths. He is like the teacher who tells funny stories in class and then at the end of the year you realize he’d snuck some heavy stuff in there, underneath the laughter. In that, he is more an heir to e. e. cummings and Philip Larkin than Walt Whitman or Robinson Jeffers. Even the titles of his poems bring a smile or nod of recognition (e g “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun in the House”, “A History of Weather”). His poems are rarely more than a page or two long, and do not ask as much of a reader as, say, Wallace Stevens or really almost any of the other poet laureates this country has produced, including the last few whose names will be forgotten in twenty years while Collins’ name endures.
And yet, despite the veneer of good humor, Collins writes so many poems about mortality that one wonders how he keeps from diving into the abyss. Perhaps it is that, though acknowledging the darkness, he embraces the light when it appears. Something as simple as, for example, hearing the gospel group the Sensational Nightingales on the radio moves him to write, “God bless their families and their powder blue suits.”
Collins has an uncanny way of writing the way people talk, or like to think they talk. He doesn’t “blow pipe smoke in readers’ faces,” as he put it in one poem. “Pinup,” an amusing poem about calendar girls at the car garage, reminded me of Richard Brautigan before the booze and Phillip Larkin after the booze.
Collins’ “Night Letter to the Reader” could, in fact, have been written by Larkin, as it echoes the latter’s masterful “Aubaude.” “I get up from the tangled bed and go outside, / a bird leaving its nest, / a snail taking a holiday from its shell, / but only to stand on the lawn, / an ordinary insomniac /amid the growth systems of garden and woods. / If I were younger, I might be thinking / about something I heard at a party, / about an unusual car, / or the press of Saturday night, / but as it is, I am simply conscious, / an animal in pajamas...”
Hill-Stead Museum 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, 860-677-4787