Billy Collins: A Great American Poet

1220 words - 5 pages

“I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive…” (3); so begins a poem titled “Introduction To Poetry” by Billy Collins. “Introduction To Poetry” is, in fact, the introduction to a collection of poetry called Poetry 180, a program started by Collins during his time as poet laureate for the United States. The aim of this program is to get people, especially teenagers, interested in or reconnected with poetry. Collins selected an assortment of poems that are just fun to read and not meant to be discussed; he says in the forward to the collection, “High school is the focus of my program because all too often it is the place where poetry goes to die” (xvii). Collins was honored with the title of poet laureate in 2001 because of his own outstanding poetry. Billy Collins is considered by some to be the greatest American poet since Robert Frost because he connects with his readers, he makes the mysterious ordinary, and he portrays the ordinary as mysterious.

Billy Collins has been called “accessible without being [mundane]” (Pool, par.1). Collins is relatable because he takes situations that most people have been through and puts them into words that are at the same time comic and thought provoking. (Collins once said, “The perfect poem for me to write would be a poem in which the reader couldn’t tell at any point whether the poem was serious or humorous”). In the poem “Forgetfulness”, Collins describes the frantic feeling that comes when a fact floats out of the brain. The person experiencing this tragic but everyday occurrence struggles to bring it back, but “the memories [the person] used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones” (Collins 20). Aside from frustration, there is the underlying fear that every time a memory is forgotten, death is a little bit closer. Collins also uses allusions to poets who are well known or authors that people may have come across in high school. Unlike poets like T.S. Eliot, whose poetry sometimes doesn’t make sense unless the reader has a degree in literature, Collins refers to Edith Hamilton and The Norton Anthology of English Literature in some of his works (Pool par.8). In his poem “The Willies,” Collins uses humor and a common sensation to get his point across and connect with readers. He begins with the epigraph “Public restrooms give me the willies,” which he found on an ad on a disinfectant. He writes about how sometimes a person can get rid of the heeby-jeebies and the quivers, “but the willies are another matter… once you are in their grip…there is no way to get on top” (Collins 83). Collins’ easy and light-hearted poems are accessible and nicely complement his deeper poems.

It is hard to take a complex and obscure topic, like death, and explain it in a way that make it seem more perceivable, but Billy Collins succeeds in a tactful way. In the poem...

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