Billy Collins served as U.S. poet laureate for two terms (2001-2003), and New York state poet from 2004-2006. He’s published 12 books of poetry and edited three others. The New York Times has called him “the most popular poet in America, ” and he’s something rather odd in publishing circles – several of his books of poems have become bestsellers, including Ballistics: Poems (2008).
The word “ballistics” is the study of the dynamics of projectiles, which we might more associate with Miami CSI or Law and Order, but Collins associates it with something else – books. From the title poem:
“When I came across the high-speed photograph
Of a bullet that had just pierced a book –
The pages exploding with the velocity –
I forgot all about the marvels of photography
And began to wonder which book
The photographer had selected for the shot…”
He goes on to speculate which book it might have been – one by Raymond Chandler, “where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed, ” or a work of medieval literature, or a biography of Joan of Arc. Drifting off to sleep, he realizes that the “executed book” was a collection of poems written by someone he doesn’t like.
That’s vintage Collins: a slightly off-center curiosity; a playfulness that often ends in seriousness; and a writing style that is immediately accessible.
He considers everyday things, like birds, and everyday feelings and experiences, like tension, despair, separation and aging. Here’s “A Dog on His Master:”
As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.
Humorous, straightforward, simple – yet with a depth below the simplicity. That’s Billy Collins, and that’s Ballistics.
Related post: International Arts Movement has reposted an audio interview with Billy Collins from January 2009.
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Family Education has a “Name the Poet Quiz, ” which provides lines from a poem and three choices for the author.