Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Master of the Everyday ; America's Poet Laureate Captures the Ordinary in Language All Can Hear

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Master of the Everyday ; America's Poet Laureate Captures the Ordinary in Language All Can Hear

Article excerpt

How does a poet become a pied piper? Why does Billy Collins, America's newest poet laureate, pack auditoriums in the United States and abroad? And why have his last three books broken sales records?

Some critics would say that Collins lures readers with his accessibility: He doesn't use inflated language or obscure references. His work does not intimidate readers. He appeals to people with both simple and discriminating tastes.

But that's not the whole story. Not according to his sixth book, "Sailing Alone Around the Room." Collins's new and selected poems shows how he attracts such a vast audience: by offering a pleasant tune sung in a pleasant way.

His poems have a strong narrative element and are easy to follow. Readers can skim them and pick up most of what is there. No need to ponder over every line to find the subtler nuances.

Perhaps more important, however, is the familiarity of the subject matter. Collins doesn't try to explore faraway realms; he is master of the everyday. He writes about watching his dog, the shock of growing up, shoveling the driveway, and going through the new lingerie catalog. His world is the ordinary - but with a twist.

At his best, Collins reveals the unexpected within the ordinary. He peels back the surface of the humdrum to make the moment new. Take, for example, the first three lines of "Snow Day":

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished....

Or the first two stanzas of "Japan":

Today I pass the time reading

a favorite haiku,

saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating

the same small, perfect grape

again and again.

These stanzas illustrate Collins's skill at using imagery and metaphor to elevate his subject matter without making it too lofty. Collins satisfies the reader's need for poetic "magic" without allowing those flourishes to become precious or distracting.

Collins also knows how to end a poem. Almost unfailingly, he builds toward interesting images and observations, as in this poem titled "The Man in the Moon":

He used to frighten me in the nights of childhood,

the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft. …

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