Billy Collins may be the first poet since Frost to achieve popular and critical acclaim in equal measure. He’s won NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, and been included in the Best American Poetry anthologies. He’s appeared on _A Prairie Home Companion_. He has his own website. And after a recent reading at a high school, students cheered him on with shouts of, “Go, Billy!”

   Poetry being the too-often obscure biz that it is, Collins’ celebrity is a natural subject of interest to a journalist. And Collins being the sort of poetry-directed guy that he is, it’s not a subject of much interest to him. He’d rather talk about poetry, which he describes as “a kind of travel writing,” a genre in which the poet can take the reader on vicarious trips to places that may be otherwise inaccessible. "

   In Collins work, those adventure trips begin by “finding a common ground that the reader and I can both stand on. I work in a plain-spoken manner, and try to deliver pleasure by taking the reader into a state of suspended animation, where the subject matter is left behind, and other explorations begin.”

   In “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Three Blind Mice,” the kitchen and the stereo are rapidly left behind, and we go into what Collins calls “a hologram,” in which we see the mice in “their tiny darkness,” and ponder, with the poet,


   how did they ever manage to find one another?

   Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse

   to locate even one fellow mouse with vision

   let alone two other blind ones?


Hologram-like, the comic plight of these nursery rhyme mice soon starts taking on depth and pathos, as Collins considers


   …the thought of them without eyes

   and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

   or slip around the corner of the baseboard…


Ultimately, as Collins steps back out of the hologram and into his own life, both poet and reader are enriched by the experience.


There’s always a reader in Collins’ world, which is a large source of the strength of his poetry. He strives for “a hospitable quality” in welcoming that phantom reader into his world. “At a certain point,” he says, “I began consciously writing against obscurity, and appreciating the virtues of clarity.”


Equally important in Collins’ work is his sense of a connection with the great poets who have preceded him. “In a sense,” he says, “all poems are about some other poem. You’re always riffing on earlier work. As William Matthews has said, ‘A poet is never alone. You’re always in the company of the beloved lines of your predecessors.’” At the same time, he points out, influence becomes a fascinating dialog across time. “While you are the audience for great predecessors, they’re your audience, as well. Influence is a two-way street. For example, Whitman was an important influence on Ginsberg – but because of Ginsberg, we now read Whitman differently.”


This sense of history is important to Collins, and as a teacher, he believes it’s one of the most important things a young poet has to learn. “The history of poetry is one of cross-historical conversation. And you have to listen to that conversation before you can jump in and become a part of it.  It’s not just self-expression, as a lot of young would-be poets think.”