Silly Billy, funny and wise

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I heard poet Billy Collins read his poems the other night. This was my second time in just under a year that I paid money to attend one of his readings. I’m beginning to feel like a groupie, but I can live with that. He is so worth it I’ll pay to see him whenever I can.

In his casually unassuming way, Billy is just downright funny. Someone asked him, “Do you have a routine? Do you write every day? Do you try to write a certain number of lines?”

“Well, no,” he said, and he paused. He looked a little as if he’d forgotten the question or at least was trying to figure out what it was he did do. He focused and told us that he figured some people might do those things, but he walked around a lot looking out windows, kind of randomly. He drank cups of coffee. Watched birds. And squirrels. If he thought of something, he wrote it down.

He stopped talking, looked bemused. “Really, sometimes nothing comes,” he explained. Later he said, “It’s important to do nothing. There’s a lot of busyness in the world. I think to be a poet you might need a lot of downtime, gazing at stuff, not thinking too much.” In a poem called “Monday,” he explains it: “…and the poets are at their windows/ because it is their job for which/ they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.”

What a dry and witty fellow, both just talking and just writing poems.

He is famous, which few poets are, at least while they live. He is called America’s most popular poet and “a household name,” but when someone asked, “When did you know you were a poet?” his response was: “You know? When someone called me from the Library of Congress to tell me I’d been appointed poet laureate of the country.” He smiled widely like he might have smiled at the telephoned news, in 2000. “I figured I must be a poet if they said so.”

He is generous in his praise of other poets, current ones he likes, like the poet on the stage with him – Marie Howe. They are friends and he, a gentleman poet, said he was the privileged one to be on stage with such a good poet.

He does not denigrate his worth as a poet but he certainly doesn’t make it sound any more glamorous than being a CPA, other than his delight in doing nothing all day and then — perhaps — getting a poem from watching his dog sleep or a guy walk past his house or his owning up to his chagrin at forgetting names of books, as well as their authors. He is not unhappy with the perks of poet, however — “I get to leave New York in the middle of winter for Florida so I can read a few poems,” he said. “Somebody pays me to do this. It’s quite a remarkable thing.”

His poems are deceptively simple, and they’re often about simple things — mice, for example, in your old but beautifully rehabbed house in the country. The mouse in his poem “The Country,” to the great joy and awe of his fellow mice (“little brown druids,” Billy calls them), inadvertently torches off the conflagration that burns down “what used to be your house in the country.”

He reads a twisted dog poem in which the dog never liked the master at all but put up with him because he had no other place he could think of to go; a dog living in a kind of ennui of his dog fate. It is a typical Billy poem that makes you think, after you have laughed: Is all the devotion your pet gives to you really sycophantic resignation?

He read a philosophical poem, explaining a part of Socrates’ teachings, or maybe it was Plato’s. The audience sighed at the end of it, and Billy laid his collection of poems down and said, “When the audience sighs and there’s nothing to sigh about, the poet knows he may have to do a rewrite.”

Commenting on a Billy collection, a critic wrote, “…a perfect gift for someone you know who loves poetry. Or who hates it.” He has been named the best poet on the planet, but there’s no hubris to this guy, only humor. And really fine poems. Look him up and read a couple. You’ll be entertained. And I would bet on your being delighted.

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