Billy Collins - Selected Poems: Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Picador, 2000)
by Joshua Jones
I think people are far too harsh on Billy Collins (I almost wrote ‘poor Billy Collins’, but the man has probably sold more books than all of his harshest detractors combined). Sure, he’s not exactly doing anything exciting or original, or using his position in the world of poetry to open readers up to the kind of writing they’d not otherwise encounter (not that he has any obligation to do this), or deconstructing the stable self; sure, when he writes about lighting cigarettes on a long drive (‘Driving With Animals’, pp. 5-6), that is about as edgy as he gets; sure, when he dabbles in magic realism or whimsical symbolism it is pretty cringeworthy. You’re not going to have some linguistic revelation reading him, or have your faith in the force of poetry validated or redeemed. But Updike was right in his appraisal: Collins writes lovely, limpid, gentle poetry. He’s a perfect read when it’s raining outside and you’re hungry and can’t be bothered to get off your arse and make lunch. Maybe he’s an American equivalent of someone like Wendy Cope. And, as the tone of this review suggests, I’m counting myself in the people who are far too harsh on him, condescending him as if I’m so much better. (I managed to resist drawing comparisons with Pam Ayres, though, so go me!)
So. Good things about Billy Collins: his poetry is resoundingly clear, meticulously concrete in its depictions and musings. It’s tediously mimetic a lot of the time, but there are also striking images; whiskey and ice, for example, being described as “cold rust” (‘Bar Time’, p. 18). There are funny, self-deprecating lines: “The more you clean, the more brilliant/your writing will be” (‘Advice to Writers’, p. 23). He is engaged with the world, shows a warm and humble representation of Billy Collins and The World in many of the poems taken from Questions about Angels. And there are a few poems that are simply perfect. Three, in fact: ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’, ‘Forgetfulness’ and ‘The First Dream’. Each of these quiet masterpieces explore their subjects so delicately and so clearly that one cannot help but be moved, cannot help but smile in recognition, these gentle but strong poems, imbued with a tone of melancholy that never congeals into negativity. However, three brilliant poems in a Selected Poems collection that is 148 pages long, spanning twelve years, is not exactly something to jump for joy about.
But it is too easy to criticise these poems for what they are not, to mock them for their populist style. It is also wrong. I’m sure Billy Collins’ poetry has affected a lot of readers, has had an effect on the lives of far more people than the average practising poet ever will, and while he’s not a technically groundbreaking writer, the clarity of his writing is impressive, his ability to pinpoint in accessible, common language complex emotions and thoughts is something admirable. And if he proves a stepping stone for just one reader into the murkier waters of the poetry world, then I would say that he has done a good thing.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
9 months ago