Billy Collins: Picnic, Lightning

Here is a light review while we here in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving.

A few weeks ago when I reviewed Lolita I remembered this delightful book of poetry, Picnic, Lightning (1998), titled after a line from Lolita. Billy Collins served two terms as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, and it was during that term that I came to know him and this particular collection of poetry. He then served as New York State’s Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. Since this collection, Collins has released four collections, Ballistics (2008) being the most recent. However, none of them have matched Picnic, Lightning for me.

picnic-lightning

Billy Collins is well known as an accessible poet. In fact, he feels that poetry should be accessible. Here is a quote from 1998 (according to wikipedia : )  ):

As I’m writing, I’m always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.

Here is a good example of this effect:

Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey

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.

Much of his poetry is playing with everyday observations, turning them into something more playful, if not more profound. Indeed, his humor is well known, and in 2005 he won the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. Here is a list of titles that should give some idea of how playful Collins’s poetry is:

  • “Lines Lost Among Trees,” about a man who went for a walk, had a great line, and, before he could fetch a pencil, lost them.
  • “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” juxtaposing a mobile Buddha with his typical sitting figurine.
  • “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” (“The complexity of women’s undergarments / in the nineteenth-century Ameica / is not to be waved off . . .”) a wonderfully amusing homage to the master poet herself.

Not all of his poems are as playful, but most have a light feel. Many lead the reader from this light feel to a disturbing conclusion that leaves the reader drifting in thought. It is a great poet who can still make me think years later about what his final poem in the collection, “Aristotle,” not only means but how I feel when I think about what it means. Still, even this poem, with its multitude of historical figures and phrases, is very accessible.

For better, and most definitely for worse, I find almost every Collins poem accessible after only one or two reads. This makes it easy to curl up with one of his books of poetry and simply enjoy his observations over and over again. In the conversational tone, he addresses the reader frequently, and for a long time I considered Billy Collins to be an intimate friend despite the fact that he knows nothing of me.

A lot changed after Picnic, Lighting, however. I first went back and read his earlier poems and found them enjoyable too (almost all of his major poetry awards came in the 1990s). But by the time I got around to reading his post-Picnic books, I found his style and his, uhmmm, simiplicity, a bit underwhelming and disappointing. It felt like he hit success and then kept writing similar poems. That is not to say there are no gems in his recent books, but they just don’t have the same fresh feel that Picnic, Lightning offers.

Still, I highly recommend this collection of poetry even for those who do not like poetry. In fact, for those who don’t like poetry but are curious, this is a perfect place to start.

6 thoughts on “Billy Collins: Picnic, Lightning

  1. John Self says:

    I have a UK edition of Collins’ selected poems, called Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (I think). To be honest, I’ve never got further than the first poem, ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’ (again, title from memory). I do like that poem, so I’m not sure why I haven’t gone any further in the book.

    I will look it out and see which of the poems in it are from Picnic, Lightning (though I do slightly resent Collins’ appropriation of that wonderful parenthesis from its rightful place on page 2, or thereabouts, of Lolita!).

  2. Just as I was beginning to think that this entry would never have a comment, John! If you dig out your copy of Collins’s poetry, I’m very interested in your take.

    I think “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” is a good poem and a good taste of his type of poetry: clever, observant, sometimes a bit simple. And I agree with you regarding the appropriation of the phrase from Lolita, though at least he attached it to a work that is one of his best examples of wordplay and content.

  3. I read this following your comment on my blog Trevor, interesting that I spoke of the inaccessibility of much modern poetry and here we have the perfect counterexample.

    He sounds like a poet worth reading some of, but perhaps not a lot of, since I have the impression he may have settled somewhat on a formula. I tend to think poetry is often at its best when communicating a feeling, something often too imprecise to nail down in ordinary prose but which the condensed prose of poetry somehow captures and gives access to for the reader.

    Lightly humorous and playful poetry will catch feelings other poems might not, so it’s good someone is writing such, slight shame though if he is repeating himself. Dangerous thing, success, particularly for poets who as a rule don’t much encounter it.

  4. Trevor says:

    Excellent thoughts, Max. I think Billy Collins is a poet worth reading. When he was poet laureatte of the United States he did a lot to help poetry acquire a broader reading base – for a while. I don’t think most readers . . . uhhh, progressed past his type of accessible poetry. However, he did introduce us to many accessible poets who were truly wonderful with words, and I think there is a lot of value in that type of demystification of poetry. (Though as far as I can tell, despite a better poetry education people here still persist in the wrong interpretation, completely disregarding half of the word, of Robert Frost’s poems, particularly “The Road Not Travelled.”)

  5. Most readers of any sort won’t move away from the accessible, which is fair enough, after all the inaccessible wouldn’t be such if it was easy to get into. If he introduced people to other accessible poets though, that’s a real service and some readers will have tried other stuff.

    Plus, I see no great merit in inaccessibility in itself (nor in accessibility actually). I think poets should write that which they are moved to write, and if its accessible great and if not that’s fine too. All that means is it will have fewer readers, but perhaps better informed ones so allowing that poet to try some different things.

    Now I’m off to refresh my Robert Frost, I’m actually not that familiar with his work, I’ve read some, but not recently.

  6. I feel guilty about not commenting on poetry, but I do admit that I can’t read it. I’d love to blame my university professors (because Milton and Spenser were where I got my degree) but I think it is more that I just can’t slow my reading down enough to appreciate poetic language. So, even though I am outside the stream, keep up the good work.

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