Former Laureate still composes poetry for the people

Henry Clayton Wickham

Poet Billy Collins said during an NPR interview with Neal Conan this past week that poets themselves deserve much of the blame for their craft’s waning importance to the average reader. Too often poets show off with obscure verses that lose the reader’s interest.

In his book “Horoscopes for the Dead,” Collins displays an uncanny ability to set his reader down on the firm and mundane ground of everyday existence before transporting them somewhere profound and often mysterious using his elegant and simple writing style.

Collins, a former American Poet Laureate whose 10th book of poetry was released last week, strives to make his poetry accessible for the average reader, though he wants to avoid being pigeonholed by this characteristic of his work.

Collins’ knack for finding meaning in the ordinary is as much the product of his talent as a viewer as of his formidable poetic skill. Whether the subject is time, death or his dog, Collins’ poems rely on observation and his eye for the poetic.

In the poem “Vocation,” he reflects on his true vocation of “keeping an eye on things/whether they existed or not,” as he lies on a dock contemplating the traffic of the night sky.

Though he considers serious topics in “Horoscopes for the Dead,” Collins keeps things humorous in poems such as “Feedback” and “What She Said,” where he gives his take on improper use of the word “like.”

“When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner, I was like give me a break.” Collins writes, “I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break./I was just similar to give me a break.”

Though it explores comical territory, the book begins and ends on a serious note. While his past books have opened with playful poems addressing the reader, Collins begins this one by describing an imagined conversation with his parents at their gravesite in “Grave.” Then in the final poem of the collection, “Returning the Pencil to its Tray,” he praises the simple joy of observing, but not writing. Similarly, in “Bread and Butter” he merely describes an evening at the beach, deciding not to interpret the lovely scene.

“Something tells me I could make/more out of all that, moving down/and inward where a poem is meant to go,” Collins writes, “But this time I want to leave it be,/the sea, the stars, the dogs, and the clouds.”

Genre: Poetry
Pages: 106
For those who like: Garrison Keillor, Williams Carlos Williams
Grade: B+