by Phil James
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Billy Collins has achieved what so many others have failed to accomplish: to write about ordinary life in an extraordinary and often hilarious fashion. As poet Richard Howard puts it, “Mr. Collins is funny without being silly, moving without being silly, and brainy without being silly.”
The former US Poet Laureate and Guggenheim fellow has written several books of poetry and is considered one of the finest living poets in the world. Collins is also wildly popular, and both serious and light readers have rewarded him with acclaim and book sales.
Collins works against the most common tropes that people assign poetry. Instead of layering his verse with various levels of analysis, he focuses more on producing a pleasurable experience for those who are at the very least willing to engage with his work. Of course, Collins will include obscure references and conventional imagery, but these will always play second fiddle to the personal understanding you should be gaining from his work.
One of the best things about Collins’ poetry is that you don’t need to be an erudite scholar to write like him. Also, you probably won’t need to change your writing style. Collins writes very conversationally, as though he’s sitting across from you with a fresh cup of hot cocoa. Let’s dig into the details.
1. Begin with your life experience, be it with a funny thought or a description of daily life.
If you want to bring your listener to “another place”, don’t just assume they can be easily transported there. Words come first. Like so many others, his poem “I Ask You” places us in a regular setting instead of a fantastically-improbable locale:
What scene would I rather be enveloped in
than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
at ease in a box of floral wallpaper,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen titled in the back of my hand
But poetry should be transcendent, right? What’s so important about sitting at a table? Collins doesn’t deny that poetry is powerful, but his verse reflects what is truly important to him. The description of material goods (cabinets, wallpaper, a telephone) reminds us that the things around us shouldn’t define our peace and understanding.
2. Don’t take words–and the fantastical images they create–for granted.
The mythical heroes of the past dealt with many of the same daily problems we deal with, but that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to be ordinary. Take the poem “Reaper” as an example. The image of the man with a scythe has historically been applied by poets as a symbol of death, but Collins reduces the myth to quotidian terms:
As I drove north along a country road
on a bright spring morning
I caught the look of a man on the roadside
who was carrying an enormous scythe on his shoulder.
He was not wearing a long black cloak
with a hood to conceal his skull-
rather a torn white tee-shirt
and a pair of loose khaki trousers.
While the first stanza establishes the image, the second turns it on its head. But just because the white tee-shirt and khaki pants are not “serious” doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. Rather, Collins wants the reader to think about death, but as a such a fearful thing. Death is a regular part of daily life, and that is itself a reason to appreciate life even more, as he suggests with the last stanza:
And there was nothing to do
but keep driving, turn off the radio,
and notice how white the houses were,
how red the barns, and green the sloping fields.
In a sense, all you can do is live.
3. The conclusion of your poem should form like a musical canon.
If your piece is about shoveling, then you should describe both the physical and emotional toll it takes. But at the end, you should express, without being too explicit, what lesson or message or philosophy we can take from daily life. “Romanticism”, a poem from his book “The Art of Drowning”, depicts the narrator looking at old books.
There are the sick rooms of the nineteenth century
and the faces of the dead in photographs.
There are the symphonic forests of Germany
with dark brooks running through them
and rocks for the distraught to lay their heads.
He makes fun of the melodrama and the elevated flavor of Romantic poetry, but also makes it clear that he’s looking into artifacts from the distant past. But then the narrator goes on to describe someone he loves, and the “look of the table/you rose from only moments ago”. Collins then takes elements from the external and the personal, and concludes with an image of
a warm run of beach where your shadow
might have reached forever down the sand
in the last glow of daylight.
4. Don’t just use irony to be funny. Use irony to tell us about the foibles of the human condition, about our daily relationship with our flaws and about our willingness to be transcend the mundanity of daily life.
Satire and humor writing are not simply about getting a laugh, and Collins knows this. Rather, writers have always used humor as a way to reveal the true nature of one’s character. The daintiest aristocrat is a boor. The know-it-all doesn’t know the first thing about facing adversity. Consider his poem, “Bereft”, which deals with the universal theme of death:
I liked listening to you today at lunch
as you talked about the dead,
the lucky dead you called them,
citing their freedom from rent and furniture
The first stanza approached death from an ironic perspective, but Collins has a point. Collins-the-narrator unravels the irony of calling the dead ‘lucky’ but pointing out that the bad things in life really aren’t that bad. Rather, we can’t see death as something that is either good or bad, because the person who experiences it experiences a nothing so absolute, we can’t even fathom it.
5. Understand that it is our foolishness that make us wiser, and at time it is our vices that make us beautiful.
What Collins teaches us through his poetry is that sometimes we need to give in to our true nature to learn about ourselves. It’s ironic when someone who denies their true self must face that person in the end. Consider his ode to one of his former vices, “The Best Cigarette”. It begins like so:
There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.
Obviously nostalgic, Collins slowly transforms images of pleasure into images of uncertainty. In the fourth stanza, he compares his smoking to the use of steam and coal during the industrial revolution.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
Collins’ uses the locomotive image for a very specific purpose. While he assumes that the poetry brought him progress, he also implies that his progress came at a price, that price being his health. Collins also implies that cigarettes helped him progress, but he can’t remain stuck in the past.