Billy Collins: Laughter in the dark

He's charming, funny, accessible: the US could hardly have a more reader-friendly Poet Laureate than Billy Collins. Christina Patterson discovers the skull beneath the grin
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Billy Collins's last three poetry collections have broken all records for sales of poetry in the US. His fans include John Updike and Annie Proulx, who has raved about his "wonderful eye looping over the things, events and ideas of the world, rueful, playful, warm-voiced, easy to love". Currently the US Poet Laureate, following in the footsteps of Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Pinsky, he is a well-known voice on National Public Radio. In this country, however, he is something of a well-kept secret.

The first major shift came three years ago, with the first British publication of his work: the eye-catchingly entitled Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes. Next to a photo of Dickinson's Amherst hallway is a quote from Carol Ann Duffy calling Collins "one of my favourite poets in the world". On the back cover, the American poet Michael Donaghy, who has lived here for nearly 20 years, declares: "I'd follow this man's mind anywhere." There are signs that increasing numbers of British poetry readers are beginning to agree with him.

"I was here before, a long time ago, / and now I am here again / is an observation that occurs in poetry / as frequently as rain occurs in life." These lines, from "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey", are typical Billy Collins. The 'I' of the poet muses playfully, taking a sudden thought on an ambling journey to its (often surreal) conclusion. The tone is light, affable, the language unpretentious to the point of plainness, the keynote a gentle irony.

"Charming" is one of the words most frequently used about his work, together with others such as "tender", "rueful" and "wry". As the poet shares his irritation with the neighbour's barking dog, his pleasure in a delicious Italian meal or in chopping parsley (the poem is actually called "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of 'Three Blind Mice' "), the reader is sucked into a cosy world of companionable conversations and walks with the dog.

In the flesh, Billy Collins is charming indeed. His smile is warm, his laughter lines a reassuring sign that the humour in his poems is no mere technical concern. He is here to do a gala reading in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, alongside Duffy, among others, and introduced by Andrew Motion. The two poets laureate will also share a platform in an event for the Aberdeen Word Festival that involves a live video link on a gargantuan screen. Collins has cut himself shaving and is worried about the scab.

If he now seems like poetry's patron saint of accessibility and humour, it was not ever thus. As a young man, he confesses, he "committed deliberate acts of obscurity" because he "bought the connection between difficulty and value". It took "quite a while for me to unbutton myself and speak a little more naturally ... Because if you go through graduate school, as I did, in America and you read Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane and Eliot and Pound, you come out of that pretty convinced that humour has no place in poetry." It was a poem by Thom Gunn that triggered his Damascene conversion. "I remember thinking I didn't realise that you were allowed to write a poem about Elvis Presley."

He did not, however, publish his first book until he was 47. Those early poems are certainly playful, certainly funny, full of leisurely thoughts about the weather, forgetfulness ("The name of the author is the first to go / followed obediently by the title, the plot, / the heartbreaking conclusion,"), paintings and poetry. There are also, however, intimations of a darker theme; intimations, in fact, of mortality.

In "The Dead", the poet imagines hordes of the dead "always looking down on us ... while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich". In "Memento Mori", he gets straight to the heart of the matter: "There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk, / to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome, / or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint's bone. // It is enough to realize that every common object / in this sunny little room will outlive me".

In "Purity" he addresses, or rather undresses, the subject of the poet at work. Sitting down in his study with a fresh pot of tea, the poet takes off his clothes and then his flesh and organs, "so that what I write will be pure, / completely rinsed of the carnal."

It's a lovely dig at the pursuit of poetic purity and the poet's grandiose ambitions to add to the canon. They are immediately debunked by a sudden confession: "I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on. / I find it difficult to ignore the temptation. /Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter. // In this condition I write extraordinary love poems, / most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death."

Sex may not feature that prominently in his work, but death is there all the time, beneath the surface. In his new collection, Nine Horses (Picador, £7.99), there's a poem called "Velocity", which again addresses the subject of the poet at work, this time on a train. The poet is poised to write, pen uncapped, "but there was nothing to write about / except life and death / and the low warning sound of the train whistle".

This, I tell him, seems to sum up his poetry. "There's one subject in lyric poetry," he replies, "and that is that you have this existence and at the end of it you're going to experience non-existence. And when you compare the two," he adds, with a throaty chuckle, "you're struck with the fact that existence is full of particulars like a bread-box or a girl's ponytail or a cup of soup, whereas non-existence would seem to lack these particulars. So that the poems are kind of urgent recognitions or celebrations of the particular world around us that we are leaving as we speak."

In the light of this preoccupation, does it irritate Collins to be constantly referred to as a poet of suburban humour? He shrugs. "I'm not affected very much by critical opinion ... Most of the poems I'm writing are trying to be a kind of combination of light and dark ... In theatre we have these two faces: the face of comedy with this big grin and the face of tragedy with this down-turned mouth. But we don't have the face of irony."

Collins feels that the transition in his own work, even his more recent work, is from the "sarcasm and wit" of his father to his mother's more "heartfelt" approach to life. It seems a brave move for a poet laureate, particularly in a country where the poetry establishment is sustained and honed by the sharpened knives of academia. Does he worry what other poets will think? "I don't estimate where I am in the contemporary poetry scene," he declares cheerfully. "What I do feel myself a part of is the historical tradition behind me ... As solitary as writing is, you're never really alone because you have the companionship of all these voices."

His poems are full of nods to Frost, Dickinson, Tennyson, Wordsworth and John Clare, all the poets he has revisited every semester as a teacher of literature. For many years he was introduced at readings as "a teacher who's also a poet", which gradually changed to "a poet who's also a teacher". He is not, he says, defined by either role. "Teaching for me has been very enjoyable, it's given me a home and a job. I don't think it's been a singular source of self-esteem. I don't think poetry has either. It's an activity. Poetry is something I do in my inner life. It turns one's inner life or aspects of it into a performance."

As performances go, it's a pretty good one. His reading that night - he is last on the bill - is a spellbinding end to a spellbinding evening. We all bask in the honeyed tones of that rich, soothing voice, as American as apple pie, punctuated by ripples of appreciative laughter from the audience. In the green room before he goes on stage, and at the party afterwards, surrounded by strangers, the charm of this refreshingly unegotistical poet does not falter. But what of the life beyond all this, the life beyond the laureateship and the jamboree?

"Well," says Billy Collins with yet another wry smile, "I'm looking forward to being bored again, to day-dreaming. I'll just go back to these things that poets are supposed to do instead of running round the country going to fancy dinners. I'll go back to looking at the water, kicking pine cones and having a staring contest with the cat."

Billy Collins

Billy Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He wrote his first poem in his parents' car when he was 10. At 18, he sent poems to Poetry magazine, but waited 25 years before sending some more. His six books of poetry include Picnic, Lightning (1998), The Art of Drowning (1995), Questions about Angels (1991) and The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988). Billy Collins's Selected Poems appeared from Picador in 2000 as Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes. His new book, Nine Horses, is also published here by Picador. He is distinguished professor of English at Lehman College and lives with his wife Diane in Westchester County, New York. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the US for 2001-2003.