The poems of Billy Collins seem destined to assure he is always relegated to that odd sphere of “major” minor poet. As Ogden Nash discovered before him, having a sense of humor and not being afraid to flaunt it means a deduction in critical points before the analysis even begins. Write elegies about the passing of a flower and you are immediately taken seriously; write comical poems about the Victoria’s Secret catalog and eyes get raised when you are named Poet Laureate.
And yet, Poet Laureate of the United States is exactly the distinguished title that Billy Collins held from 2001 to 2003. Somebody up there likes poetry that makes you laugh. Then again, the place that Collins holds in the contemporary world of American poetry may have less to do with his sense of humor than the lack of a sense of humor some of those poets who can rightfully be considered more significant writers have toward his commercial viability. In 1993, publishing giant Random House signed Collins to a three-book deal said to be worth six figures. For a poet, the sum was nothing less than the kind of jaw-dropping shock capable of negatively influencing critical appreciation of the content.
Whatever the cause, Billy Collins is unquestionably one of the major figures in American poetry at the turn of the millennium. Though he has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, what is most astonishing about the career of Billy Collins may be that he is popular and his verse considered accessible. Unlike most purveyors of what is often derogatorily referred to as “light verse,” Collins does not rest his laurels upon the short and sweet epigram, limerick or turn of phrase. In fact, his poems usually tend to be longer than most, densely packed and structured like a surrealist jazz performance where a recurring motif is the bane of the common man: the compulsive need to list or categorize.
In other words, the poems of Billy Collins are humorous, but not in the sense of Nash or Dr. Seuss. Reading many of Collins’ free-flowing examinations of the most common elements of millennial-era existence can have the effect recalling some of the verse of Lewis Carroll. Perhaps one day Collins will set aside poetry and provide the 21st century with its version of Alice in Wonderland.