You may think writing poetry is all about gazing at the stars in the sky and the bluebells in the fields, then being struck by divine inspiration. But if you ask Billy Collins, he’ll tell you the process is more like a Wallace and Gromit cartoon.
“There’s a great one where the dog is on top of a locomotive,” says the two-term U.S. poet laureate, who appears Thursday at Miami Dade College as part of a series celebrating the 30th anniversary of Miami Book Fair International. “He’s got a box full of track, and he’s frenetically laying down track in front of the train. That’s a good metaphor for writing a poem.”
Collins, 72, has been laying track quite proficiently. His latest collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random, $26), gathers work written since 2002, with selections from Nine Horses, The Trouble With Poetry, Ballistics and Horoscopes for the Dead. A distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College, Collins was U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 and poet laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006. He also filled in for Garrison Keillor this summer as host of The Writer’s Almanac.
As for his poems, well, they celebrate (as he writes in No Things): “[T]his love for everyday things,/part natural from the wide eye of infancy,/part a literary calculation.”
“I think he does a really good job of being smart and simple at the same time,” says P. Scott Cunningham, director of the O, Miami poetry festival. “When you read or listen to a Billy Collins poem, you’re getting a clear insight into the way his mind works. He’s a funny guy, and I look at the world as a pretty funny place. … That humor makes poetry safe for a lot of people who haven’t read a lot of poetry or are intimidated by it or got it shoved down their throats in school. What he does is incredibly difficult to do.”
Going back through a decade’s worth of work to choose a sort of “literary greatest hits,” though, can be a challenge, Collins says.
“I don’t look back nostalgically and think, ‘Those are the poems of a younger man who had hope, and now there is no hope,’ ” he jokes. “One thing I have is a persona, the sound of the voice I’ve developed. When I write, I enter my persona’s character. It’s like getting into character as an actor, but the character is close to who the actor is. It’s not like me playing King Lear. I’m playing my idealized self, and he doesn’t change very much.”
Aimless Love covers a lot of ground, including such classics as The Trouble With Poetry (“the trouble with poetry is / that it encourages the writing of more poetry / more guppies crowding the fish tank”) and the hilarious The Revenant, in which an irate dog chastises his master from the afterlife (“Now I am free of the collar / the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater, / the absurdity of your lawn …). No single theme dominates.
“There’s one poem about a boyhood game I played, one about visiting Keats’ house, one about eating alone, another about a memory of my father,” Collins says. “There’s not one poem after another about nature or personal misery. There’s an ode to a desk lamp! In that sense it’s hard to track.