by Billy Collins
The dirty little secret about Billy Collins’ poetry is it is hilarious. I have always found his poetry amusing, but in person, the poet adds fuel to the flame. If you read Collins’ book, Ballistics, this way, you will see what I mean. If one must contemplate “. . .love, death, solitude, youth, and aging” (as the blurb on the dust jacket of this edition states) there are not many ways more pleasurable to do so than through Collins’ poetry. He mixes tone and sense of scale in ways that show how poetic experience can be both profound and absurd.
As a book of poetry, Ballistics is both brilliant and amusing. Yes, Collins writes about Greek statuary and Paul Valery, but he does so with the same sensibility as the speaker who loiters in the aisle at the drug store contemplating a purchase or plays “three little piggies.” These narratives of contemplative, daily activities cut through the middle of contrasting and seemingly irreconcilable images of the poet like the bullet that cuts through the book of the poet’s rival.
Collins’ poetry is both contemplative and self-deprecating, turning on the poetic structure of meditation at the hinging point of the stanza break. He uses enumeration, in a limited list of common objects, to give the metaphorical a concrete heft. In his found poems, there is a tenderness in the way he treats his subjects, such as in “Bathtub Families,” where he turns to point towards poetic language. Here the development of the poem shows how a subject alters thought and thought alters the object of meditation.
The titular poem, “Ballistics,” speaks to the states of consciousness necessary to write about the state of being a writer, the state of being a poet, and how it is very much like just being a human being. For Collins, poets seem to be people who are compelled to write poetry the way other human beings are compelled to do all kinds of mundane things like eat, drink, loaf, desire, and fear. Case in point: when Collins worked at the Southampton Writers’ Conference some years ago, he told a story which I will paraphrase here. While chopping wood, the poet got an idea for a poem and wrote it on a log. When he returned to the house, he had to get it into the typewriter, and his wife got mad at him for bringing a log into the house.
Michele Balze has just finished writing a book of blank verse sonnets entitled After the Math. Her MFA thesis was a book of poetry called Suburban Myths: or more notes on grunge. Balze was the 1989 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize.