Billy Collins

B illy Collins is considered to be one of the most popular poets in America.  Questions about Angels, published in the early 1990s, brought him into the literary spotlight. Collins’s poems are relatable and at the same time thought-provoking. He is known to use wit to speak on deeper, more profound topics but in a way that allows reader could find something to appreciate.

Billy Collins

 


Life Facts

  • Billy Collins was born in Manhattan, New York in March of 1941.
  • In 1963 he received his BA from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  • He went on to get his M.A. and PhD. in romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside in 1971.
  • Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003.
  • Collins was recently elected into The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2016.

Interesting Facts

  • Billy Collins wrote his first poem at twelve years old. 
  • He founded ‘The Mid-Atlantic Review’.
  • Billy Collins toured alongside singer Aimee Mann.
  • He presented two TED talks.
  • Collins did three readings of his poetry at The White House.


Famous Poems by Billy Collins

The Revenant is a memorable poem that discusses animal/human relationships. Readers will be challenged to reassess their understanding of human beings as the most important creatures on the planet while also finding humor in Collins’s depiction of his dog. The speaker eventually decides that animals have a value that is entirely their own, separate from human perception.

 

Introduction to Poetry is a poem about poetry. Collins, as the speaker of this poem, discusses poetry and the ways in which one can understand it. He brings his students into the poem and also speaks about his job.

 

Afternoon with Irish Cows describes one speaker’s ideas about the inner lives of cows and what it means to exist in the world. he watches the cows near his home and has come to know what they do and when they do it. He has a hard time understanding their patience in particular. As the poem concludes something happens that makes the speaker reconsider cows and their essence. He suddenly sees them for more than just the simple, mindless creatures he regarded them as at the beginning of the poem. 

 

American Sonnet is a clever and humorous poem that takes a look at how poetry is used. He examines a “picture postcard” and what it means to write verses on the back of an image. The postcard is broken down into its parts and determined to be a “compression of what we feel”.

 

The Afterlife was first published in Poetry magazine and then later in Questions about Angels, in 1991. This poem is about everyone’s individual conceptions of what the afterlife is. Using humor, Collins confronts the topic of death by lighthearted describing the various ways religions depict death. Such as “squeezing into the bodies of animals” and being inspected by a female god in her “forties with short wiry hair”. 

 


Early Life

Billy Collins was born in Manhattan, New York in March of 1941. His parents, William and Katherine, raised their son in Queens and White Plains, New York. Collins would later describe his family life as being filled with positive influences from his parents. His mother quit her job to take care of him and was the first to trigger in him a love for literature and appreciation of the Beat Generation poets. He wrote his first poem at twelve years old. 

 

As a young man, Collins attended school at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains and participated in his school’s literary magazine. In 1963 he received his BA from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He went on to get his M.A. and PhD. in romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside in 1971. While at Riverside his work came under the influence of writers such as Robert Peters, Karl Shapiro, and Reed Whittemore. 


Literary Career

Later that same year he began working as a professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx. Around this same time, he founded The Mid-Atlantic Review.’ Over the following decade, he wrote a number of poems for ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine as well as finishing and publishing his first volume of poetry, ‘Pokerface,’ which was released in 1977.

 

The 1980s saw Collins finish two more books of poetry, ‘Video Poems,’ in 1980, and ‘The Apple That Astonished Paris,’ in 1988. While he was producing steadily, his work was not receiving any noteworthy attention. This changed in the 1990s when a manuscript he wrote, titled, ‘Questions About Angels’ was chosen for the National Poetry Series. He would go on to win a number of prizes for his work during the 90s, including five from ‘Poetry’ magazine. 


Writing Career and Relationships

Throughout his career, Collins has taught at a variety of institutions across the United States and Ireland and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003. He was later named poet laureate for the State of New York, a position he held for another two years. His writing has led him to make a number of notable friendships including with Paul Simon and Garrison Keillor and allowed him to become a poetry consultant for Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. 

 

Throughout the early 2000s, he did three readings of his poetry at The White House, hosted a radio program for NPR, toured alongside singer Aimee Mann, and presented two TED talks in 2012 and 2014. He is currently on the board at ‘The Alaska Quarterly Review,’ and was recently elected into The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2016. 


Influence from other Poets

Billy Collins was notably influenced by writers such as Robert Peters, Karl Shapiro, and Reed Whittemore.


Poems by Billy Collins

Explore poetry by Billy Collins below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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