Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. His work has appeared in a variety of periodicals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The American Scholar, he is a Guggenheim fellow and a New York Public Library “Literary Lion.”
His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. His readings are usually standing room only, and his audience – enhanced tremendously by his appearances on National Public Radio – includes people of all backgrounds and age groups. The poems themselves best explain this phenomenon. The typical Collins poem opens on a clear and hospitable note but soon takes an unexpected turn; poems that begin in irony may end in a moment of lyric surprise. No wonder Collins sees his poetry as “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door into the serious.” It is a door that many thousands of readers have opened with amazement and delight.
Included among the honors Billy Collins has received are fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has also been awarded the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize — all awarded by Poetry magazine. He has also received the Aiken-Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, The Hall-Kenyon Prize,the Mailer Prize for Poetry, and the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. In October 2004, Collins was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry.
In June 2001, Billy Collins was appointed United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003. In January 2004, he was named New York State Poet Laureate 2004-06. He is a former Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. In 2016 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
American Sonnet by Billy Collins
We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
and it is not fourteen lines
like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field
but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms
or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.
We write on the back of a waterfall or lake,
adding to the view a caption as conventional
as an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes.
We locate an adjective for the weather.
We announce that we are having a wonderful time.
We express the wish that you were here
and hide the wish that we were where you are,
walking back from the mailbox, your head lowered
as you read and turn the thin message in your hands.
A slice of this place, a length of white beach,
a piazza or carved spires of a cathedral
will pierce the familiar place where you remain,
and you will toss on the table this reversible display:
a few square inches of where we have strayed
and a compression of what we feel.