Dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times, Billy Collins is famous for conversational, witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the everyday, reading and writing, and poetry itself. John Updike praised Collins for writing “lovely poems...Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.” But Collins has offered a slightly different take on his appeal, admitting that his poetry is “suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that.” Collins’s level of fame is almost unprecedented in the world of contemporary poetry: his readings regularly sell out, and he received a six-figure advance when he moved publishers in the late 1990s. He served two terms as the US Poet Laureate, from 2001-2003, was New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, and is a regular guest on National Public Radio programs. Collins has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts and has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York, where he is a Distinguished Professor. He is also Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida, and a faculty member at the State University of New York-Stonybrook.
Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He earned a BA from the College of the Holy Cross, and both an MA and PhD from the University of California-Riverside. In 1975 he co-founded the Mid-Atlantic Review with Michael Shannon. Though Collins published throughout the 1980s, it was his fourth book, Questions about Angels (1991), that propelled him into the literary spotlight. The collection was selected by poet Ed Hirsch for the 1990 National Poetry Series. A Publishers Weekly critic applauded the collection’s “strange and wonderful [images]” but believed that the poems—which are often “constricted by the novelty of a unifying metaphor”—”rarely induce an emotional reaction.” In contrast, reviews of Collins’s subsequent work regularly laud his ability to connect with readers. Discussing Picnic, Lightning and its predecessor, The Art of Drowning (1995), John Taylor noted that Collins’s skillful, smooth style and inventive subject matter “helps us feel the mystery of being alive.” Taylor added: “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.”
Taking off’s Clothes (2000) was the first Collins collection published outside the US. It selected work from his previous four books and was met with great acclaim in the UK. Poet and critic Michael Donaghy called Collins a “rare amalgam of accessibility and intelligence,” and AL Kennedy described the volume as containing “great verse, moving, intelligent and darkly funny.” Sailing around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), the US version of Collins’s selected, had a tumultuous journey to print. The story, which garnered a front-page slot in the New York Times, originally cast Collins’s first publishers, the University of Pittsburgh Press, in an unfair light, accusing them of refusing to grant rights for poems requested by Random House for inclusion in Sailing around the Room. However, it later emerged that Random House had begun to produce the book without first securing rights from Pitt Poetry Press, a highly unusual move for a major publishing house to make. Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the controversy for Salon, noting that “ultimately it was Random House, not Pitt, that chose to delay the publication of Collins’ selected volume.” The battle between Random House and the University of Pittsburgh Press was public and uncharacteristic of the sleepy world of poetry publishing. When Sailing around the Room was finally published, in 2001, it was met with enthusiastic reviews and brisk sales.
Collins’s next books Nine Horses: Poems (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Ballistics (2008) and Horoscopes for the Dead (2011) have continued his sales streak by offering more poems that mix humor with insight. Reviewing Nine Horsesfor the New York Times, Mary Jo Salter commented that Collins’s “originality derives, it seems, from the marriage of a loopy, occasionally surreal imagination…to an ordinary life observed in just a few ordinary words.” She added that “one appeal of the typical Collins poem is that it’s less able to help you memorize it than to help you to remember, for a little while anyway, your own life.” But Collins’s emphasis on writing—and writing “ordinary life” at that—can, for some critics, make his poetry seem pedestrian or one-note. However many readers find Collins a source of warmth, wit and surprisingly sure technique, and reviewers have consistently noted how Collins’s poems manifest a literal concern for their readers. John Deming in Cold Front Mag has discussed Collins’s concern for those reading his poems because“the transmission of poem to head takes place always elsewhere and in silence, in the mysterious space where poems live…Collins lets us access this place with alarming graciousness, and the openness of his voice probably helps account for his popularity.”
Poet Richard Howard has said of Collins: “He has a remarkably American voice…that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity besides, reaching very far into what verse can do.” Collins has described himself as “reader conscious”: “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” Collins further related: “I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day. To the left and right there are an amazing set of distractions that we usually can’t afford to follow. But the poet is willing to stop anywhere.”
Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College and founding advisory board member for CUNY Institute for Irish-American studies; writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College; served as Literary Lion of the New York Public Library; US Poet Laureate, 2001-2003; New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006; has also taught at Columbia University; Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida; faculty member at the State University of New York-Stonybrook Southampton; appears regularly on National Public Radio and was guest host for “The Writer’s Almanac,” June-August 2013.
- Pokerface, limited edition, Kenmore, 1977.
- Video Poems, Applezaba (Long Beach, CA), 1980.
- The Apple That Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1988.
- Questions about Angels, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1999.
- The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1995.
- Picnic, Lightning, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
- Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, Picador (London, England), 2000.
- Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
- Nine Horses: Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
- The Trouble with Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
- She was Just Seventeen (chapbook), Modern Haiku Press (Lincoln, IL), 2006.
- Ballistics, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.
- Horoscopes for the Dead, Random House (New York, NY), 2011.
- (Contributor) The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
- (Editor) Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
- (Editor) 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
- (Editor) Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2009.
- Booklist, March 1, 1998, p. 1086; November 1, 1998, p. 483.
- Library Journal, June 15, 1991, p. 81.
- New York Times, December 19, 1999.
- Poetry, January, 1989, p. 232; February, 1992, p. 282; February, 2000, p. 273.
- Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, p. 59.
Poems By BILLY COLLINS
More poems by Billy Collins (86 poems)
- Dancing Toward Bethlehem
- Dear Reader
- Elk River Falls
- Fiftieth Birthday Eve
- First Reader
- Fishing on the Susquehanna in July
- In All the Excitement I Forgot To Ask His Name
- In the Room of a Thousand Miles
- Introduction to Poetry
- Irish Poetry
- January in Paris
- Liu Yung
- Man in Space
- Memorizing “The Sun Rising” by John Donne
- No Time
- Osso Buco
- Questions About Angels
- Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles
- Report from the Subtropics
- Sick Room
- Snow Day
- Splitting Wood
- Student of Clouds
- Study in Orange and White
- The Afterlife
- The Art of Drowning
- The Best Cigarette
- The Biography of a Cloud
- The Breather
- The Chairs That No One Sits In
- The Death of Allegory
- The End of the World
- The Genius
- The Listener
- The Long Day
- The Moment
- The Movies
- The Next Poem
- The Parade
- The Wires of the Night
- Traveling Alone
- Tuesday, June 4th, 1991
- What I Learned Today
- While Eating a Pear
- Why I Would Rather Be a Painter
- Winter Sparrow
- Winter Syntax
- Writing in the Afterlife
Articles About BILLY COLLINS
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Lectures
Two-term poet laureate Billy Collins speaks at the Key West Literary Seminar.
Billy Collins: Essential American Poets
Recordings of the poet Billy Collins, with an introduction to his life and work.
Cartoons and Poetry
As a kid, Saturday morning meant one thing: cartoons. Remember that quiet time just after sunrise, when your parents were still asleep? You'd wake up early, maybe pour yourself a bowl of cereal, turn on the tube, and get lost in a universe of the implausible. Billy Collins remembers.
Garrison Keillor, Billy Collins, and Kay Ryan
Excerpts from an evening of conversation and poetry.
The Joy of Sax
Jazzing up Billy Collins.
The Poetry Garage
A thing of wonder and of beauty
VideoNewsHour Poetry Series
- Poet Billy Collins Reflects on 9/11
Billy Collins read "The Names" before a special joint session of Congress in 2002, and again on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 for the NewsHour.
- The Lanyard
The poet reads.