Billy Collins (b. 1941) is a genuinely popular poet whose books have sold over 200,000 copies since the appearance of his first collection, Pokerface
, in 1977. Born in New York City he attended the College of the Holy Cross and went on to take a PhD in Romantic poetry at the University of California. He has spent much of his working life in academia, teaching English at Lehman College, City University of New York, for over thirty years. His appointment in 2001 as the American Poet Laureate gave Collins a national profile but it is the warmth and humour of his poetry which inspires lasting affection. An abiding legacy of his laureateship is the Poetry 180 project and resulting anthology which encourages high school students to read contemporary poems for pleasure. Collins has received numerous awards including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His close association with his native city is ongoing; he was elected as the New York State Poet for 2004 and continues to make his home there.
Billy Collins prefers the term "hospitable" to "accessible" for his poetry and the experience of reading his work is indeed akin to being invited into the home of a cordial and considerate host. Collins frequently addresses the reader directly, thereby establishing what he has described as a "temporary companionship". His poems characteristically open with a specific domestic context which creates intimacy, but the initial premise, that "little common ground", develops into something much stranger by the close: as Collins has said his poems might unfold logically but "the progress is usually toward something that is beyond my sense of logic." The journey is often by way of humour; few poets are as frequently hilarious as Collins, but this is entirely compatible with depth and his poetry is not afraid to explore our most serious preoccupations.
Laughter is a communal experience and that may partially explain Collins' huge popularity as a reader of his own work. It's appropriate therefore that his Archive-featured recording is of a live performance from his hometown of New York. Nowhere is the leisurely, inclusive charm of his style more evident than in the closing poem 'Nightclub': "We are all so foolish...we have become beautiful without even knowing it."
His recording (Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space
, Random House, USA, 2005) was made on 20 April 2005 in New York and was produced by Jacob Bronstein. Billy Collins Live
is available from www.randomhouse.com
Billy Collins's Favourite Poetry Sayings:
"Poetry is harder than writing."
- A former student
1986, Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts
1983, Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts
1991, National Poetry Series publication prize - winner, Questions About Angels
1992, New York Public Library 'Literary Lion'
1993, Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
1994, Poetry Magazine - Poet of the Year
1995, Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, Academy of American Poets - shortlist, The Art of Drowning
2001, US Poet Laureate