Today in Literary History – March 22, 1941 – poet Billy Collins is born

American poet Billy Collins was born on March 22, 1941, in New York City. He was the United States Poet Laureate for two terms as well as being the New York State Poet Laureate. Collins is regularly described as “America’s favourite poet.”

Collins writes in a low-key, witty style that seems simple and “non-poetic” at first. His poems are usually about everyday concerns and often have an emotional message behind the seemingly mundane subjects.

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Some critics find Collins’ apparant simplicity ultimately deceptive. Critic John Taylor has written: “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.”

Collins himself has complained that because his poems are so accessible (even to people who don’t generally read poetry) he isn’t taken seriously by academic critics. One critic has said that “Collins is a ‘major minor’ poet at best whose work is formulaic, if not predictable, and whose relentless efforts to charm the reader assume that the only way a poem can work is on the demotic level, which is to say, as colloquial speech.”

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Personally, I like Collin’s poetry and have enjoyed it for years. Here’s a good example of the poet considering, in a whimsical way, the question we all ask sooner or later: what happens to us after we die?

 

The Afterlife – Billy Collins

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They’re moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals–eagles and leopards–and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

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