Poet Biographies

Billy Collins: Master of Modern Verse

The award-winning American poet, and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins has left an indelible mark on poetry. His work captures the beauty and humor of the everyday experience, resonating with readers from all walks of life.

Billy Collins Portrait

Billy 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. Billy Collins’ 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 readers to find something to appreciate.  His collections of poetry are filled with ordinary moments and everyday objects, yet they manage to reveal the extraordinary in the mundane. 

Collins is one of the most accessible poets of a generation, working to push poetry to the masses. By having two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, he was able to impact the way poetry was read in society. He has been critically acclaimed, winning many awards, such as; The Mark Twain for Humour in Poetry AwardThe Frost Medal, and gaining many fellowships, including one at the Guggenheim Foundation and The New York Foundation for the Arts.

Life Facts

  • Billy Collins was born in Manhattan, New York, in March 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

  • 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.”

Explore more Billy Collins poems.

Early Life

Billy Collins was born in Manhattan, New York, in March 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 several prizes for his work during the 90s, including five from ‘Poetry’ magazine.

One of Billy Collins’ poetic mantras is that a lot of meaning can fit into short poems. Despite spending his early career taking inspiration from confessional poets of the mid-20th century, he later developed into a short-form poet that focused on simplicity but with depth. One of his most notable new collections of poetry is “Musical Tables,” which epitomizes his view that beauty can be found in short verse.

Collins became a New York Times bestseller with his work “Aimless Love,” which is an anthology of 125 short poems. A number of his other poetry collections regularly appear on the bestseller list, showing how popular he remains to this day.

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 of ‘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. It is said that during his teenage years, he was a big fan of the Beat Generation poets.


What was Billy Collins’ most famous work?

Although “Question about Angels,” his fourth book, propelled his literary career, Billy Collins has written a number of very famous poems. These include; ‘The Revenant,’ ‘Introduction to Poetry,’ ‘Afternoon with Irish Cows,’ ‘American Sonnet,’ and ‘The Afterlife.’

What is Billy Collins’ style of poetry?

Billy Collins is known for his very simplistic style that doesn’t limit itself to many rules. His extremely well-executed free verse and short approach to writing have helped him gain such a reputation among poetry lovers. He tends to write about seemingly small situations and topics but makes them interesting and humourous.

What is Billy Collins most famous for?

Billy Collins is most famous for his reputation as a poet. The two-time former U.S. Poet Laureate has won a number of awards and garnered plenty of critical acclaim for his simplistic yet beautiful poetry. His works focus on one’s daily life and turn seemingly mundane topics into humorous pieces of free verse.

What did Billy Collins teach?

Billy Collins wasn’t always a critically acclaimed poet; he had a long spell as an English professor at Lehman College in New York. He took this path after earning his doctorate in Romantic poetry at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

What are the themes of Billy Collins?

The main thematic direction of Billy Collins’ poetry tends to focus on the seemingly mundane daily human experience. However, he approaches these themes with a humourous and open voice, turning unordinary into the extraordinary.

William Green Poetry Expert
Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.

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