Taylor describes Billy Collins's poetry as a "charming mixture of irony, wit, musing, and tenderness for the everyday" (273), qualities that make him one of the most accessible American poets writing in the late 20th century. Unlike many poets of his generation, Collins often uses humorous anecdotes as the basis for his work. This sense of humor, tempered with wise observation and skillful manipulation of image and story, attracts both an academic and a nonacademic audience. Critics praise his craft, which transforms the apparent superficial image or idea into verse that is metaphysically and lyrically surprising.
Born in New York City, Collins received a B.A from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1971 from the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of seven books of poetry and has received many fellowships and awards. In 2001 he was named poet laureate of the United States.
Collins's poems often begin with conversational language and a deceptively simple idea or image. He uses these as the basis for a more complex meaning that emerges near the end of poems. For example, in "victoria's Secret" (1998), a speaker pores over glossy photos from a victoria's Secret lingerie catalog; by the end of the poem, these glimpses of flesh symbolize one way for the speaker to forestall death. In "Going Out for Cigarettes" (1999), the speaker contemplates the trajectory of a man who runs away from his life.
Collins's poems sometimes begin lightheartedly, yet his prevalent themes often include death, the effects of aging, disconnectedness, and the ambiguity of language. Though he bases much of his work on life in the real world, his more hopeful poems explore imaginative possibility. As John Updike explains in a blurb to Collins's The Art of Drowning (1995), "they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides." In "The Blue" (1988), Collins illustrates this characteristic poetic stance as his speaker makes a leap into that "other world": "A jaded traveler with an invisible passport, / I am at home in the heaven of the unforeseen."
Collins's lyrical mastery and his use of the everyday as well as the oft imagined allow him to examine what seems to be the ordinary with extraordinary detail and illumination.
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