By Billy Collins
Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1995
ISBN # 0-8229-3893-6
95 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2011

Billy Collins open with a word to the reader. This “word” is itself a poem, but set aside from the rest of the book. He tells us that he is an ordinary guy, going to do poetry in an ordinary manner. Not like . . . and then he lists a half dozen poets, showing us with clever erudition, that he will not be like them. Very ironic, clever, and quite well done.

However, that was followed with another poem using a similar theme. In the first poem of the collection, Consolation, he tells us in the first line “How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer.” The poem then alternates between his erudition (but standing aloof and above) of things Italian and of the typicality of Americans travelling in Italy, and a very down home visit to his local coffee shop and even admiring the local billboards. Yet, he never lets us lose site of his knowledge of travelling in Italy, he’s just above it all now.

The Biography of a Cloud expresses the pure creative poet’s pleasure of creation rather than the scholar’s research, yet displays ample scholarship along the way.

I don’t bring this notion up to be critical. I enjoy the down home writing of the small town and humble local poet and the “classic” and way to be toward classic writers and classic places. Nonetheless, there is a certain level of dishonesty in this pretense as well.

There is sort of gentile easy about the life of the poet as we see it from his view. He tells us:

. . . . it is impossible
to tell if I am a man of leisure
or a martyr to idleness, tied to these trees
condemned to swing gently in the shade until dead.

Bill Collins relaxes me like a bottle of exceptional wine. I get all mellow, and near-by troubles melt away. I read a poem, often chuckle a soft laugh, lean my head back, stare up at the ceiling or unseeing out the window and say, “oh my, that is so lovely.”

The title poem is well chosen. Here he gives alternating notions of what it should be like before one dies of drowning, not how it is said to be.

The book is crowded with poems that do this – give us an alternative view of everyday things – he is a poet who seeks to have slowed life now, inspected it with open eyes and deep sensitivity, then captured this private world to share it with all of us.

The book is divided into four sections. I didn’t see any particular themes arising in these various sections, and oddly enough, while I really liked the overwhelming bulk of poems in the book, I wasn’t very impressed with any in section three.

It is a lovely, gentle read with lots of “ah ha” moments.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett