EIBF 2014: ‘JUST A REGULAR FELLOW’ – BILLY COLLINS

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Billy Collins performed on 19th August 2014.

by Stephanie Green

I have looked forward to hearing Billy Collins for many years since my sister, who lives in the U.S., raved about him. He is mega-famous over there, unusually not once but twice U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001 and again in 2003 and New York State Poet from 2004-6. That he is no less popular over here was evident at this reading from Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Picador 2013). The event was sold out, the audience packed with regular festival punters but also fellow poets and I even caught sight of Phill Jupitus. It does not take long to see why a comedian might like to learn a few tricks from Collins, nor why the audience are so receptive, laughing at sly asides, not just waiting for a ‘punchline’ (Collins is cleverer than that, but he’s good at those too), nor why a poet like Paul Muldoon is in the audience. Carol Ann Duffy has said “Billy Collins is one of my favourite poets in the world”, as Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library quoted in her introduction.

A poet of the everyday in the Frank O’Hara style, unashamedly suburban, middle-class, domestic, his subject matter instantly connects with everyone with recognizable situations or feelings. This happens, and then that, you feel as if he is taking you on a walk through an ordinary day and he is talking to you in a natural, conversational style, his New York accent perfect for a wry, self-deprecating humour.

The opening lines of ‘The Lanyard’ make us feel we are in the room with him, behaving how we all imagine poets write poetry, allowing poetic licence for the surreal exaggeration:

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,

bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary […].

“I am,” he said, “not a poet all the time. I’m just a regular fellow walking around or sitting on a bench,  on the look-out for a good metaphor….elephants or a sentence that snags your attention, something I can spin into a poem, then it’s game on.” And the game is laid back, so casual, the craft is difficult to spot, drawing us in from his first line like: “Too bad you weren’t here six months ago…” (from ‘The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska’); or “As optical illusions go / it was one of the more spectacular…” (‘Lakeside’); and we’re hooked. He’s not above more gruesome openings:

I am the dog you put to sleep
as you like to call the needle of oblivion

come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you – not one bit.
(‘The Revenant’)

Our attention caught, Collins confounds us with the unexpected. This is not going to be a sentimental poem about a dead loved pet, and we can’t wait to hear how this tale will unfold. And playing us like a fisherman his fishing line, Collins ratchets up the effect with details so excruciating you wonder if this will be his usual humorous poem or not: 

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.

When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.

I will never feel the same about dogs again. But this dark humour does not last long and the poem lightens at the end with an unexpected twist: 

and that is all you need to know about this place [i.e. the after-life]
…that everyone here can read and write,

the dogs in poetry, the cats and all the others in prose.

Poetry is indeed one of Collins’ favourite subjects. Treating us to his poem ‘Snow’, he mocks poetic conventions. “You’d think Shakespeare had put the brakes on it” he quipped, a nod to ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’:

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is no way you are the pine-scented air.

(‘Litany’)

He also read one of his most well-known poems ‘Night Club’ where more poetic clichés are turned inside out into absurdity:

I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful

and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.

“Sassing,” as Collins puts it, the Classic Texts we had to study at High School or university is a good way to get an audience on your side, as in his ‘Note to Thomas Stearns Eliot’ where he eats a peach: “and little rivers of juice / are now running down my chin…What is your problem, man?” A howl of laughter from the audience. A tiny suspicion that Collins can be philistine at times creeps in…but on second thoughts I remember this is a knowing reference to Eliot’s “Do I dare to eat a peach?” (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’) Ho, hum. I take it back. There is always something more, if you dig a little deeper in Collins’ superficially transparent surfaces, not just relying on a knowledge of poetry but a resonance which gives us more to think about later.

It is Collins’ recognizable humanity and his affectionate sense of humour that really wins us over. This is wonderfully displayed in his ironic ‘To My Favourite 17-Year-Old High School Girl’, sentiments recognizable to any parent of teenagers who stay in their room and refuse to do the dishes:

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space. 

‘Forgetfulness’ in particular rang true to those members of the audience including me over, say, 30:

As if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones…’

Laughter broke out from the audience, but there was more to come:

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember…
It has floated away down a dark mythological river

Whose name begins, with an L [more laughter] as far as you can recall [even more laughter].

The comic timing is impeccable and thinking of which, after the event, I managed to ask Phill Jupitus why he had come to hear Collins: “The precision of his words is like sculpture, it’s perfect. Beautiful,” he said. “They undo me – technically and emotionally.”

Just so.

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