This is for Peter who nagged me ever so gently for a review.
Reading Billy Collins is fun. You don’t have to keep linking back and forth to the online dictionary, parsing the poetic sentence to determine the complete thought, and wondering what the heck was he saying, anyway? Billy Collins’ poems are accessible and yet they still pay off because they are, like all good poems, about life’s beauty and death’s inevitability. But listening to Billy Collins is even more fun—because he’s funny. Yep, laugh-out-loud funny.
I know this because I saw him speak last Friday outside Atlanta at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. The venue, Agnes Scott College, was packed beyond standing room. The line queued around Presser Hall (of interest to me only in an unpractical way as I accompanied my brother-in-law to our VIP seats right up front—thanks, Sis) a hundred deep an hour before show time.
Mr. Collins, whom I’m dying to call Billy, was relaxed in a friendly open-collared way. His a-little-too-longish hair stuck out in those Bozo tufts which he must know added to the comedic sense surrounding him. He chose poems he knew would get a laugh and his timing was perfect. Also perfect were his set ups; he introduced each poem with just enough information to fully welcome the audience to it. I’d always been amused by Billy Collins’ poems on the page but his reading found the absurdities I’d missed in my own. He was humble—I had forced a pseudo-seriousness on him that didn’t quite fit.
One of the first poems he read was “Fishing On The Susquehanna In July.” I was charmed because its subject sprang from the painting I remembered studying in grammar school. Herman Herzog's Fishing On The Susquehanna
Its first line, “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna,” opened the poem to its humor. Neither have I ever fished the Susquehanna, but its image is a part of the American landscape just as Collins poetry has become a part of American culture.
Another poem he read was “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice.” This one spoke of the power of music to soften “the cynic who always lounges within.” An interesting aside here from the poet was that "mice" tend to “come to the surface” in his poems.
Collins said his poem "Litany" was a send-up of two lines he had come across by another poet and parodied. His emulation took the poem in a new direction and I'll bet, I enjoyed it so much, to a new height. It begins with a comparison, as love poems often have done, to a woman's beauty: "You are the bread and the knife,/the crystal goblet and the wine./You are the dew on the morning grass/and the burning wheel of the sun"; it segues to an assessment of the speaker/poet himself. The audience got a great kick out of his delivery of the following lines:
It might interest you to know
speaking of the plentiful imagery in the world
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
But it is his affection for his subject that makes me fond of Billy Collins. The poem's last line speaks of love's intoxicating properties: "But don't worry...//you will always be.../..somehow--the wine."
That’s how Billy Collins is in person—like a glass of good wine—he makes you feel good and you want a little more.