THE NEW York Times described him as “the most popular poet in America”, and Billy Collins certainly enjoys the kind of following that many a writer would envy.
When he moved to Random House in the late 1990s he received a six-figure sum for a three-book deal, a virtually unheard of occurrence for a poet. Much of Collins’s appeal rests on the conversational, witty, tone that often characterises his verse, but while he deploys humour as a ‘welcome mat’ for the reader, the poems are also marked by piquant and profound reflections on life.
John Updike has said that Collins’s poems are “Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides”.
An Irish identity?
Collins was born in New York in 1941, the only child of William and Katherine Collins. While both his parents had Irish backgrounds, Collins was not raised with a strong sense of Irish identity.
“To be frank, there wasn’t much Irishness in the house I grew up in,” he tells me. “My father was from a large, poor, Irish-American family in a mill town in Massachusetts, but he spent much of his working life trying to rise above his origins to the point where he associated Irishness with poverty and lack of education.
“Yet, when he would have a drink or two, he loved to tap dance and break into song. He had a high ‘Irish’ tenor, and he taught me how to harmonise with him (or anyone ) at a very young age. So he never succeeded in disguising his origins.
“My mother was half-Irish, on her mother’s side, the Murphys from Waterford, but as a Canadian, she chose to identify more with her Scots father, a MacIsaac from South Uist, one of the Outer Hebrides. Whatever Irish identity I have, I more or less picked up on my own, from reading Joyce, Yeats, Flann O’Brien, Kavanagh, and others - and a good bit from marching in the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York, playing the trumpet badly (I mean hitting every third note ) in the school band.”
Collins was in his forties when his first full collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris was published. “It took me a long time to figure it out,” he has said of finding his own distinctive poetic voice.
His first collection to be published in Britain was Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (2000 ). I asked him about the memorable title poem.
“I wrote the poem partly because I like being irreverent - speaking of the Irish temperament - but also I had grown tired of the spate of biographically slanted books on Dickinson full of speculations about her sexuality,” he replies. “It seemed to me to be the lowest form of literary criticism that smacked of gossip. I used the poem’s title as the title of the UK publication only because hardly anyone outside of America knew my poems at the time, and I thought a snappy title might attract some attention, even if it were of the prurient kind.”
Collins’ burgeoning reputation and popularity saw him being appointed as US Poet Laureate in 2001, a post he held for two years. How did he find that experience?
“The US laureateship in poetry is different from the British version in that the latter has to write ‘occasional’ poems, whereas the former only has to write occasionally,” he explains. “The reason there’s no Irish poet laureate must be because there would be fighting in the streets. Opinions about poets and their merits run higher in Ireland than they do in America.
“My contribution as laureate was a programme called Poetry 180, which suggested that a poem a day be read in American schools, one poem for every day of the 180-day school year. I picked the poems and the idea was spun into two anthologies. Scores of teachers have thanked me for giving them an approach to poetry that actually works.
“Students don’t dislike poetry as much as they think. They just need to read the right poems, which are not always the same ones offered in the classroom.”
While the US laureate is not normally required to produce verse for public occasions there was one notable exception in Collins’s case. In the wake of 9/11, the US Congress asked him to write a poem in response to the tragedy. He came up with the powerful, haunting elegy, The Names, which draws on names of actual victims, and subsequently read the poem before both houses of Congress.
“The task of writing a poem on such a huge subject was daunting until I figured out a way,” he recalls. “I would stay within the genre of the elegy and write a poem for the ones lost, and I would use the alphabet to organise the development of the poem. The two ‘restrictions’ freed me to write away. Reading in front of both houses of Congress resulted in a kind of out-of-body experience; I was up on the ceiling looking down on myself reading the poem. There seemed to be no other way to go about it.”
Finally, I mention to Collins that I happened to read that he was a passionate golfer, a snippet that seems to be news to him.
“George Plimpton is about the only writer I know who would admit to playing golf,” he said. “Where did you hear that pernicious rumour about me?”
I mention that it was in Plimpton’s very own Paris Review magazine, to which the poet replies; “A most unreliable source, especially in the hands of self confessed golfer Plimpton!”
So it does not look like we will be getting any Collins-penned odes to Rory McIlroy or the glories of Augusta. Be that as it may, there will doubtless be more than enough to delight Collins’s audience at Cúirt.
Billy Collins is reading is on Friday April 27 at the Town Hall Theatre at 8.30pm. Also reading will be poet and author Tess Gallagher. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie