Picnic, Lightning
by Billy Collins (1998)
University of Pittsburgh Press (1998)
103 pp

picnic-lightningHere 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, 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.

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.

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