A DOMESTIC scene: you’re chopping vegetables or herbs as you prepare a meal, with your favourite music playing in the background. Most of us can say, at such times, that life is good. What most of us don’t do is elevate such moments into art.
But that’s what Billy Collins does. The American poet, twice his country’s laureate, finds the poetic in the ordinary. But Collins does not wallow in the habitual, the banal, as Patrick Kavanagh famously did; instead, he uses everyday moments as jumping-off points for ironic speculation, comic inflation, reductiones ad absurdum.
In his poem about chopping parsley, for instance, he ponders how the three blind mice in the Art Blakey tune he’s listening to came to be: was it congenital? A common accident? And how they hell could they be running after a farmer’s wife, anyway?
Collins attributes poems inspired by mundane situations to “always having on the backburner a low-grade desire to write a poem.” He is speaking from Florida, ahead of his appearance at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on Saturday
He says: “But I don’t really know where the poems come from, except to say it’s a knack. I’m reluctant to explain to myself how a poem gets going, but it’s about being on the look-out. I’ve never sat down to write. I sit down when I have something to bring — an inkling, a plan of attack. I’m never staring at a blank page.”
If it’s a knack, it’s one that Collins left latent for a long time. Born to Irish-American parents in New York, in 1941, Collins pursued an academic career after taking a PhD in Romantic poetry. He then spent decades teaching, only dabbling in verse for several of those years.
“I was doing it, but not serious about it,” he says. Continuing the Kavanagh theme, Collins mentions the Monaghan man’s line about dabbling in something that then becomes your life. “John Updike was asked the same question,” says Collins, “and he said it felt like being swallowed by a hobby.
“A colleague of mine summarised my whole professional life when she was introducing me. She said, ‘when I first knew him, he was a professor who happened to be a poet; now, he’s a poet who happens to be a professor’.”
Collins continues to teach, but he has been a poet, first and foremost, for many years.
Part of what held Collins back was labouring under the modernist delusion of equating difficulty with artistic merit. “High modernism offered a way to hide behind language, that’s a possibility,” he says. “Clearly, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot have a high level of difficulty. And I enjoyed that as a grad student. I had a taste for difficult texts. It took a while to shake it off and find models like Philip Larkin, to show me that I could be clear and funny and serious at the same time. Being difficult was something I had to write through. What I understood about poetry from high school was that it was difficult and the poet was miserable. I was a happy kid, but I put on misery in my writing. Only in my 30s did I relax and let in everyday experience and humour.”
That notion of difficulty still clings to poetry, especially for reluctant audiences, who point to its perceived elitism, but you won’t find a more open door than a Billy Collins poem. They go out of their way to make the reader feel included, starting, as they so often do, in a recognisable situation.
Collins’s gift is to transcend those situations, and bring you along for the ride. His imagination takes him to some strange places, but he doesn’t cover his tracks, like a modernist. He’s too busy being a tour guide to his own wry sense of humour. For instance, ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’ opens with, “The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.” The poet puts on a record to drown out the hound, but soon, sees him:
‘Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’ finds Collins transgressing, Paul Durcan-like, imagining himself a polar explorer in Amherst, informing us: “The complexity of women’s undergarments in nineteenth-century America/is not to be waved off”.
Such poems evince what might be called Collins’s aesthetic of freedom. He doesn’t go in for the confessional, nor for Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquility”.
“Poems of memory,” he says, “are stuck in autobiography. That’s claustrophobic. Poetry offers too many opportunities to shift dimensions, for flights of imagination, not to take advantage of those freedoms.”
And if we can’t share Collins’s ability to be surprised, his talent, as he has put it, for “not ever getting used to being alive”, well, at least we have his poems, which remind us not to be dulled and deadened by habit.
“A huge motivator for me is gratitude,” he says. “You could say carpe diem, but you don’t need, perhaps, such a violent term in order to be observant and ready to be delighted. It’s a counterbalance to the habit you can fall into of ‘I’m alive, so what?’ Often, people need a near-death experience, or something like 9/11, to wake them up [...] but poets have been reminding people for thousands of years — you don’t need to be flung through a windshield to appreciate life.”
You just need to stop and read those poems every once in a while.