Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America's two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed.
Like the present book's title, Collins's poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony, "Poetry speaks to all people, it is said, but here I would like to address / only those in my own time zone"-but also with quiet observation, intense wonder, and a reverence for the everyday: "The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows. / They are at their windows in every section of the tangerine of earth-the Chinese poets looking up at the moon, / the American poets gazing out / at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise."
Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn't have to be obscure or incomprehensible, qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with most "serious" poetry: "By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet."
In this dazzling new collection, his first in three years, Collins explores boyhood, jazz, love, the passage of time, and, of course, writing-themes familiar to Collins's fans but made new here. Gorgeous, funny, and deeply empathetic, Billy Collins's poetry is a window through which we see our lives as if for the first time.
Two years after his very visible stint as U.S. poet laureate, Collins (Sailing Alone Around the Room) remains one of the nation's most popular poets. His light touch, his self-deprecating pathos and his unerring sense of his audience (nothing too difficult, but nothing too lowbrow) explain much of that popularity and remain evident in this eighth collection. "The birds are in their trees,/ the toast is in the toaster,/ and the poets are at their windows," the volume begins: the poet as sensitive everyman, moved if not baffled by literary legacies, and attracted to simple pleasures, constructs a series of similar days and scenes. "In the Moment" depicts "a day in June," "the kind that gives you no choice/ but to unbutton your shirt/ and sit outside in a rough wooden chair"; "I Ask You" opens on "an ordinary night at the kitchen table." Collins's comic gifts are also much in evidence: "Special Glasses" describes spectacles that "filter out the harmful sight of you"; "The Introduction" makes fun of footnotes and obscurities in other poets' poems. The dominant note, however, is a gentle sadness, accomplished with care and skill, sometimes (as in "The Lanyard") garnished by autobiographical wisdom. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 12, 2007
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Excerpt from The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins
The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.
They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth-
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.
The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.
The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong
game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.
Which window it hardly seems to matter
though many have a favorite,
for there is always something to see-
a bird grasping a thin branch,
the headlights of a taxi rounding a corner,
those two boys in wool caps angling across the street.
The fishermen bob in their boats,
the linemen climb their round poles,
the barbers wait by their mirrors and chairs,
and the poets continue to stare
at the cracked birdbath or a limb knocked down by the wind.
By now, it should go without saying
that what the oven is to the baker
and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,
so the window is to the poet.
before the invention of the window,
the poets would have had to put on a jacket
and a winter hat to go outside
or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at.
And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall with striped wallpaper
and a sketch of a cow in a frame.
I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman's heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.
Statues in the Park
I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,
you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.
A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider had died in battle.
If only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;
and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case-
bronze hooves affixed to a stone base-
it meant that the man on the horse,
this one staring intently
over the closed movie theater across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.
In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword-
pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.
I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,
statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.
And there was I,
up on a rosy-gray block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park,
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,
down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.
At the hotel coffee shop that morning,
the waitress was wearing a pink uniform
with "Florence" written in script over her heart.
And the man who checked my bag
had a nameplate that said "Ben."
Behind him was a long row of royal palms.
On the plane, two women poured drinks
from a cart they rolled down the narrow aisle-
"Debbie" and "Lynn" according to their winged tags.
And such was my company
as I arced from coast to coast,
and so I seldom spoke, and then only
of the coffee, the bag, the tiny bottles of vodka.
I said little more than "Thank you"
and "Can you take this from me, please?"
Yet I began to sense that all of them
were ready to open up,
to get to know me better, perhaps begin a friendship.
Florence looked irritated
as she shuffled from table to table,
but was she just hiding her need
to know about my early years-
the ball I would toss and catch in my hands,
the times I hid behind my mother's dress?
And was I so wrong in seeing in Ben's eyes
a glimmer of interest in my theories
and habits-my view of the Enlightenment,
my love of cards, the hours I tended to keep?
And what about Debbie and Lynn?
Did they not look eager to ask about my writing process,
my way of composing in the morning
by a window, which I would have admitted
if they had just had the courage to ask.
And strangely enough-I would have continued
as they stopped pouring drinks
and the other passengers turned to listen-
the only emotion I ever feel, Debbie and Lynn,
is what the beaver must feel,
as he bears each stick to his hidden construction,
which creates the tranquil pond
and gives the mallards somewhere to paddle,
the pair of swans a place to conceal their young.
I lie in a bedroom of a house
that was built in 1862, we were told-
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.