Is there anything Billy Collins misses about being the U.S. poet laureate, a post he held from 2001 to 2003?
“Not really,” Collins says genially during a call to his home in Winter Park, Florida, where he lives with his fiancée, the poet Suzannah Gilman. Collins, 75, retired recently from a long teaching career at the City University of New York. “You’re never completely disconnected from it,” Collins says of being poet laureate. “I compare it to being Miss America. Even though you might have been Miss America in 1973, it’s always part of your identity.”
Collins, who was an unusually popular American poet even before he became poet laureate, calls himself one of the “gateway poets.” These, he explains, are poets who write very readable, nonacademic poetry that can connect with people who leave the form behind after miserable experiences in the meaning-hunt of high school and college. “The key reason for the smallness of the audience for poetry is that people associate poetry with school. . . . I wrote an essay some time ago where I mention six or seven pleasures of poetry—things like the pleasure of rhythm, the pleasure of sound, the pleasure of metaphor. The last pleasure was the pleasure of meaning. The search for meaning has dominated the classroom experience of poetry to the exclusion of all these other pleasures.”
As his many fans know, Collins is a poet of what we’ll call deep playfulness. “I like to play with the reader,” he concedes. “I tell my poetry students that earnestness and sincerity are not the only tones you can take with a reader. In fact, wanting always to be emotionally sincere eliminates a lot of the possibilities for play.”
And so we get the slyly funny “On Rhyme,” whose 13th line provides the title for Collins’ delightful 11th collection of poems, The Rain in Portugal. “It’s supposed to be a kind of blunder,” he explains, laughing. “Because no word comes easily to mind that rhymes with Portugal. Portugal is contiguous to Spain, but it just doesn’t present the same rhyming opportunities as in ‘the rain in Spain.’ Some readers might think the poem is about a rainy day in Portugal, but it’s really an ironic admission to the reader—a kind of trigger warning—that if you’re looking for rhymed poetry you won’t find it here. The real admission is, I’m just not very good at rhyming.”
This sort of self-deprecation in conversation, as well as in his poems, is one of Collins’ most appealing characteristics. But that’s not the only tone he takes in his wide-ranging new collection.
In a poem called “The Present,” for example, he good-humoredly challenges the popular idea of how great it is to live in the present. “It’s questioning how you can live in the millisecond that is always vanishing before your very eyes,” he says. “And it talks about the pleasure of regretting and the pleasure of the mind’s ability to envision a future. I guess that’s what distinguishes us from cows, for example. Probably cows tend to be in the moment. They’re not thinking about what happened yesterday or when they’re going to be milked tomorrow. One of our human abilities is to imagine a future and recreate the past or fall into nostalgia.”
And then there is the darkly beautiful line in the poem “Greece”: “Is not poetry a megaphone held up to the whispering lips of death?” A number of poems in this collection seem to be meditations, often wry meditations, on death. Is mortality a particular concern these days?
“Well, no one’s getting any younger,” Collins responds. “But mortality is so engrained in lyric poetry that the inclusion of death in my poems doesn’t so much reflect my own trepidation or concerns about my own personal mortality as it is a recognition of a convention. I don’t mean to be too professorial about this, but I’ve said this before: If you major in English, you’re majoring in death. The shadow of mortality commonly falls across the page. Thumb through The Norton Anthology of Poetry and you’ll find a lot of death in there. That’s the lens through which we see things.”
I think good poetry gives you the impression that it’s being written just for you.
Collins remains an energetic and engaging presenter of his poetry, which he reads aloud at public appearances across the country. But performing a poem and writing or reading a poem, Collins says, are very different things. “Poetry intensifies one’s aloneness. . . . I don’t show my poems around to other poets [before publication]. Ever since I was an adolescent, the appeal of poetry for me is that you did it by yourself.”
Expanding on the subject of aloneness, Collins says, “If you’ve read my poems, you’ve probably noticed that there are very few other people in them. No aunts or uncles or family members; no Uncle Charlie, no ex-girlfriend. I want to be alone with the reader. I don’t want the reader to be distracted by others. That intimacy clearly gives poetry, well, if not superiority then a least a large difference from public or political language. I think good poetry gives you the impression that it’s being written just for you.”
Add a profound sense of intimacy to the lengthening list of pleasures in reading Collins’ new collection of poems.