Billy Collins, one of our most beloved poets, has chosen poems of wit, humor, imagination, and surprise, in a range of styles and forms, for The Best American Poetry 2006. The result is a celebration of the pleasures of poetry.
In his charming and candid introduction Collins explains how he chose seventy-five poems from among the thousands he considered. With insightful comments from the poets illuminating their work, and series editor David Lehman's thought-provoking foreword, The Best American Poetry 2006 is a brilliant addition to a series that links the most noteworthy verse and prose poems of our time to a readership as discerning as it is devoted to the art of poetry.
In the 19th installment of this annual series, former poet laureate Collins (The Trouble with Poetry, 2005), one of America's most popular poets ever, has culled the typical handful of big names and some surprising new voices from more than 50 American literary publications. Collins's predilections for accessibility, humor and tidy forms are evident, but there are also surprises. Usual suspects--former Best American editors Ashbery (who surprises with a poem in neatly rhymed couplets), Hass, Simic, Tate and Muldoon, as well as Mary Oliver--meet rising masters like Kay Ryan ("A bird's/ worth of weight/ or one bird-weight/ of Wordsworth"), Vijay Seshadri and Franz Wright. Most interesting, however, is the chance each volume offers to see which up-and-comers make the cut. This year's roster includes edgy poems by Joy Katz, Danielle Pafunda ("my hair cramped with sexy"), Terrance Hayes, and Christian Hawkey ("O my/ beloved shovel-nosed mole"), among others. Collins's surprising and opinionated introduction--in which he admits that, unlike some of series editor David Lehman's previous guest editors, "the designation 'best' doesn't bother me," and offers his definition of a good poem (often one that "starts in the factual" and displays "a tone of playful irreverence")--may cause some controversy. (Sept.)
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September 10, 2006
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Excerpt from The Best American Poetry 2006 by Billy Collins
Back in 1992, when he made his first appearance in The Best American Poetry, Billy Collins was a little-known, hardworking poet who had won a National Poetry Series contest judged by Edward Hirsch. He had supported himself for many years by teaching English and was, like many other poets, looking for a publisher. Charles Simic chose "Nostalgia" from The Georgia Review for The Best American Poetry 1992 and for the following year's Best, Louise Gl�ck selected "Tuesday, June 4th, 1991" from Poetry. Others, too, recognized Collins's talent. The University of Pittsburgh Press began to publish his books in its estimable series directed by Ed Ochester. Radio host Garrison Keillor gave Collins perhaps the biggest boost of all by asking him to read his poems on the air. He did, and the audience loved what it heard. Collins grew popular. At the same time, it was understood that he was no less serious for having the common touch. Asked to explain his poetic lineage, he liked citing Coleridge's "conversation" poems, such as "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." And for all their genial whimsy, many of Collins's efforts have a decidedly literary flavor, with such subjects as "Tintern Abbey," Emily Dickinson, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, poetry readings, writing workshops, "Keats's handwriting," and Auden's "Mus�e des Beaux Arts." John Updike put it exactly when he described Collins's poems as "limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem." In 2000, two publishers quarreled publicly over the rights to publish Collins's books, and the New York Times reported the story on page one. The unlikely success story reached its apogee a year after September 11, 2001, when Billy Collins read "The Names," a poem he had written for the somber occasion, to a rare joint session of Congress.
By then Collins had become a phenomenon. While remaining a member in good standing of the poetry guild, an entity with a purely notional existence whose members would theoretically starve for their art, he had regular contact with honest-to-goodness book-buying readers who were not themselves practicing poets. They numbered in the tens of thousands and made best-sellers of his books. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems were published in respected journals such as The Atlantic and Poetry and were chosen by the diverse quartet of John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and Robert Hass for four consecutive volumes of The Best American Poetry. In June 2001, Collins succeeded Stanley Kunitz as Poet Laureate of the United States, and I remember hearing people gripe about the appointment. Collins was regularly dismissed as an "easy" or "anecdotal" poet. It was then that I knew he had made it big. Harold Bloom has propounded the theory that poets fight Oedipal battles with ancestors of their choice, so that Wallace Stevens had to overcome Keats's influence as Wordsworth had earlier overcome Milton's. It sometimes seems to me that a different Freudian paradigm -- sibling rivalry -- may explain the behavior of contemporary poets, for the backbiting in our community is ferocious, and nothing signifies success better than ritual bad-mouthing by rivals or wannabes.
The story as I've sketched it broadly here illustrates more than one useful lesson. Probably the most important is that poetry has the potential to reach masses of people who read for pleasure, still and always the best reason for reading. Radio is a great resource for spreading the word, and attention from programs such as Keillor's Writer's Almanac, Terry Gross's Fresh Air, and the interview shows of Leonard Lopate in New York City and Michael Silverblatt in Los Angeles is among the best things that can happen to a book or an author. Another lesson is that some poets share a resistance to popularity -- other people's popularity, above all -- though they might bristle if you called them elitist. It's a problem that afflicts us all to some extent. We say we want real readers, who buy our books not as an act of charity but as a free choice, yet should one in our party escape the poetry ghetto, we tremble with ambivalence, as if having real readers means a sure loss in purity.