Below is the first of a few Billy Collins poems that I'll be posting occasionally in my attempt to understand what he is all about. I'll be posting more about exactly why some time soon. Meanwhile, here's two very short, perhaps uncharacteristic, poems from his second collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris:
The fox you lug over your shoulder
in a dark sack
has cut a hole with a knife
The sudden lightness makes you think
you are stronger
as you walk back to your small cottage
through a forest that covers the world.
This time when I think of his leap
from the railing of a ship
which sailed on, a scale model of the world,
I weigh only the moments when he was caught
first in the wake,
lifted and dropped in its artificial rhythm,
then must have felt the timing change
as the sea's own beat resumed
and made him part of the cadence of his waves,
dark turquoise with rolling white tops.
Ok, why these early poems if they are not all that characteristic of the man? I believe what attracted to me to these two is that they are shorter than normal for Collins and that they begin to reveal something about his method, which I feel is an important key to his success. These two don't have his characteristic humor, a major strength, but they do have something of his ironic, one might even say mildly sardonic, vision which is what I believe I have the most difficulty with in his later, more realized work. The distance from both his subjects here is striking and, perhaps, characteristic of the later work. Collins later seems to use this ironic distance to get closer to the reader, adding another layer of irony, which gives it a post modern quality that is not often spoken of about Collins in any depth. In some ways he exhibits all the flaws of the post modern artist, yet Collins has something else that most post moderns don't and that reminds me of the great post modern fiction writer, Steven Millhauser: he has heart.
This third level of irony is the most mind-boggling and, incidentally, pleasing of all. Herein I believe lies his appeal. He is distinctly a voice of this time, late 20th, early 21st century America. Wisecracking and wise, ironic and loving, a poor schmo who knows he's a schmo and that everybody else, well, we all are poor schmoes, too.
That's schmo in an affectionate, non-ironic way, folks.
More thinking out loud about Billy Collins to come ...