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Billy Collins

1941–

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 2013), Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (Random House, 2012); Ballistics: Poems (2008); She Was Just Seventeen (2006); The Trouble with Poetry (2005); Nine Horses (2002); Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001); Picnic, Lightning (1998); The Art of Drowning (1995), which was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Questions About Angels (1991), which was selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series; The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988); Video Poems (1980); and Pokerface (1977).

A recording of Collins reading thirty-three of his poems, The Best Cigarette, was released in 1997. Collins's poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper's, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.

His work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize anthology and has been chosen several times for the annual Best American Poetry series. Collins has edited Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (Random House, 2003), an anthology of contemporary poems for use in schools and was a guest editor for the 2006 edition of The Best American Poetry.

About Collins, the poet Stephen Dunn has said, "We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going. I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn't hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered."

Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was chosen by the New York Public Library to serve as "Literary Lion". He has conducted summer poetry workshops in Ireland at University College Galway, and taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York.

By This Poet

6

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Some Days

Some days I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.

All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.

But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs, 
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.

Very funny,
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next 
if you were going to spend it

striding around like a vivid god,
your shoulders in the clouds, 
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

Workshop

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title. 
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now 
so immediately the poem has my attention, 
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve. 

And I like the first couple of stanzas, 
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing 
that runs through the whole poem 
and tells us that words are food thrown down 
on the ground for other words to eat. 
I can almost taste the tail of the snake 
in its own mouth, 
if you know what I mean. 

But what I’m not sure about is the voice, 
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans, 
but other times seems standoffish, 
professorial in the worst sense of the word 
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face. 
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do. 

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas, 
especially the fourth one. 
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges 
which gives me a very clear picture. 
And I really like how this drawbridge operator 
just appears out of the blue 
with his feet up on the iron railing 
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— 
a hook in the slow industrial canal below. 
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s. 

Maybe it’s just me, 
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem. 
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars? 
And what’s an obbligato of snow? 
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. 
At that point I’m lost. I need help. 

The other thing that throws me off, 
and maybe this is just me, 
is the way the scene keeps shifting around. 
First, we’re in this big aerodrome 
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles, 
which makes me think this could be a dream. 
Then he takes us into his garden, 
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose, 
though that’s nice, the coiling hose, 
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. 
The rain and the mint green light, 
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper? 
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery? 
There’s something about death going on here. 

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here 
is really two poems, or three, or four, 
or possibly none. 

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite. 
This is where the poem wins me back, 
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse. 
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before, 
but I still love the details he uses 
when he’s describing where he lives. 
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard, 
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can, 
the spool of thread for a table. 
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work 
night after night collecting all these things 
while the people in the house were fast asleep, 
and that gives me a very strong feeling, 
a very powerful sense of something. 
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that. 
Maybe that was just me. 
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.