Poets trade in similes, so it seems only natural to follow suit: Billy Collins is the Oprah of poetry. Not so long ago, poetry never sold in the United States. That’s pretty much still true. But ever since rapt NPR listeners discovered him on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion in the late ’90s, Collins has sold more than 250,000 copies of his books. For a versifier, those are Grisham numbers.
Billy Collins is like the best buggy-whip maker of the 21st century. While many have an almost allergic reaction to text with ragged right-hand margins, they might change their minds if they opened the former U.S. poet laureate’s new collection, The Trouble With Poetry (Random House, $22.95). Collins has a knack for taking an interesting nugget of an idea — say, an article calculating that each Gutenberg Bible ”required the skins of 300 sheep” — and burnishing it into a poem like ”Flock,” which notes ”it would be nearly impossible/to count them/and there is no telling/which one will carry the news/ that the Lord is a shepherd/one of the few things they already know.”
Billy Collins is like Rodney Dangerfield. Perhaps because his work is accessible and widely read, and perhaps because people (and not just English department colleagues) actually pay money to hear him speak, he doesn’t get much respect in some serious literary circles. Admittedly, there’s little in Collins’ work for Ph.D. students to puzzle over or decipher; in Trouble’s title poem, he lifts an image from Lawrence Ferlinghetti and then footnotes his allusion with a name-check. When he uses fancy words, it’s often in jest. ”The Introduction” sends up a reading by one of those academy-endorsed poets: ”Yes, meranti is a type of timber, in tropical Asia I think/and Rahway is just Rahway, New Jersey/The rest of the poem should be clear.”
Billy Collins is a modern-day Robert Frost. In plain language free from pretension, he takes ordinary subjects (summer-camp crafts, time zones), and plunders their insides until the inner mystery pops out. And just when you think he merely intends to continue chipping away at the surface, he surprises you by scraping to the wood underneath, to some deeper truth. In ”You, Reader,” he riffs on, of all things, salt and pepper shakers: ”I wondered if they had become friends/after all these years/or if they were still strangers to one another/like you and I/who manage to be known and unknown/to each other at the same time….” Billy Collins exhausts similes.