Billy Collins

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William J. ("Billy") Collins (born March 22, 1941) is a poet who served two terms as the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2001 to 2003. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004.

He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and the University of California, Riverside.


  • 1 Career
  • 2 Work
  • 3 Critical reception
  • 4 Quotations
  • 5 Bibliography
    • 5.1 Poetry
    • 5.2 Anthologies
  • 6 External links


Billy Collins is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he joined the faculty in 1968 and has taught for over thirty years. In addition, he has taught and served as a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

As U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins read his poem "The Names" [1] at a special joint session of the United States Congress on September 6, 2002, held to remember the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

In 1997, he recorded The Best Cigarette (ISBN 0-9658873-0-8), a collection of 33 of his poems that would become a bestseller. In 2005, the CD was re-released under a Creative Commons license, allowing free, non-commercial distribution of the recording. He also recorded two of his poems for the audio versions of Garrison Keillor's collection Good Poems (2002, ISBN 0-670-03126-7).

Over the years, Poetry magazine has awarded him several prizes in recognition of poems they publish. During the 1990s, Collins won five such prizes. The magazine also selected him as "Poet of the Year" in 1994. In 2005 Collins was the first annual recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, bestowed by the Poetry Foundation (Poetry Magazine). He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 1993, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.


Although Collins's poetry is often compared to that of Robert Frost, it is marked by a rejection of forms such as the sonnet, sestina, and villanelle. For instance, his poem "Sonnet" begins "All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now", and continues in this vein; the "sonnet" is fourteen lines, but does not rhyme and is not, until the final line, iambic pentameter. He invented the poetic form of the paradelle as a hoax to parody the villanelle, using his mock "Paradelle for Susan"; the paradelle is emblematic of his rejection of formal poetry. The first paradelle anthology, The Paradelle, edited by Theresa M. Welford, was published in January 2006, showing that the inventiveness of Collins, no matter the purpose, serves to inspire other poets.

In his work, Collins has also spoken out against obtuse constructions and over-interpretation of poems. Most of Collins's work is clear and understandable to lay readers and occasionally critical of poets writing only for other poets or academics, which is not to say that Collins's work is simplistic or lacking in artistic merit. Collins shares his occasionally-critical outlook of poets who write only for other poets with his successor as poet laureate, American poet Ted Kooser.

As poet laureate, Collins published a collection of poems called Poetry 180, a collection of 180 poems (one for each day of the typical school year) that he considers appropriate poetry with which to introduce high schoolers to the form. Collins is in the center of the movement to re-popularize poetry among adolescent readers. Collins believes that exposing high schoolers to clear, meaningful contemporary poetry will whet their appetites for poetry and make them feel as though it is not a creature from another planet which should be avoided at all costs. Collins now has two Poetry 180 collections, the first of which he opens with his own poem "Introduction to Poetry", a poem that encourages enjoyment of poetry and discourages interpretation that would "tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it" or join those who "begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means." He suggests that readers "water ski across the surface." [2]

Billy Collins's poetry has often been called accessible. However, Collins does not much like accessible, a term he says that suggests ramps for "poetically handicapped people." He prefers the word hospitable for his poetry.

Billy Collins believes that a good poem is a poem that starts out by welcoming the reader, as if to introduce itself, and later shifts from simplicity, into something different, and (in some ways) mystical. He calls this type of poetry "travel poetry", referring not to physical travel , but the travel of imagination.

Critical reception

While not failing to remark on Collins' unusual popularity, for a poet, among the reading public, many critics have criticized Collins for work they consider facile and simplistic. Writing in The Guardian, Jeremy Noel Tod concludes that "[Collins] writes cosy prose for people who prefer novels. Snappy, popular poetry can also be technically and imaginatively exemplary verse: Blake, Betjeman, Frank O'Hara. Collins not only misses the rhythmic flair of such poets; he also sugars their searching honesty." [3] In Drunken Boat, Paul Stephens writes of Sailing Alone Around the Room that "though Collins may sometimes make gestures toward kitsch, he is very much working in a quasi-high culture mode, even if he occasionally tries to hide the fact. Many of his poems are supposedly witty responses to earlier famous poems (e.g. a poem titled "Dancing Towards Bethlehem"). Collins may not be a very learned poet, but he is not kitsch; Collins is much less interesting than kitsch–he is strictly banal." [4] Collins' editorship of The Best American Poetry 2006 also received a great deal of criticism.

On the other hand, a number of journals that rarely, if ever, review poetry, have reviewed Collins' work far more favourably. According to Entertainment Weekly, "Billy Collins is a modern-day Robert Frost. In plain language free from pretension, he takes ordinary subjects (summer-camp crafts, time zones), and plunders their insides until the inner mystery pops out." [5]


  • (from 1999): As I'm writing, I'm always 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.
  • (from 2004): Moving from the position of United States poet laureate to New York State poet laureate might seem like a demotion or a drop in rank to the military-minded. It might even appear that I am heading toward eventually being crowned laureate of my ZIP code. But in fact, it is very gratifying to be honored again as a representative of poetry, this time by my native state where I grew up — more or less — and continue to live.



  • The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, (2005, ISBN 0-375-50382-X)
  • Nine Horses (2002, ISBN 0-375-50381-1), named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001, ISBN 0-375-50380-3), named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review
  • Picnic, Lightning (1998, ISBN 0-8229-4066-3)
  • The Art of Drowning (1995, ISBN 0-8229-3893-6), which was a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize finalist
  • Questions About Angels (1991, ISBN 0-8229-4211-9), the winner (two years later) of the National Poetry Series competition
  • The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988, ISBN 1-55728-023-1)
  • Video Poems (1980)
  • First Reader (1977)


  • 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday Life (2005, ISBN 0-8129-7296-1)
  • Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, (2003 ISBN 0-8129-6887-5)
  • The Best American Poetry 2006, Scribner Poetry, New York (2006, ISBN 0-7432-2967-9-8)
  • 33 poems read aloud by Billy Collins, no charge (Creative Commons)
  • Poems by Billy Collins at
  • Author interview on
  • Author interview with Collins in Guernica Magazine (
  • Poem by Collins
  • Billy Collins Fan site
  • Steven Barclay Agency for Bookings - web page with a list of external links
  • Griffin Poetry Prize biography (2004 judge and award emcee)
  • Billy Collins at
  • Review of the opus of Billy Collins at The Contemporary Poetry Review
  • Billy Collins at (poetshop)
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