It is an unfortunate fact of life that most people do not read books of poetry on a regular basis, if at all. This does not mean, however, that there are not remarkable works of poetry sitting on our library shelves, deserving to be considered great books you may have missed. Poetry will be occasionally, though not regularly, be featured on this blog, and there’s no better place to start than here, with Picnic, Lightning (1998) by Billy Collins.
I came to Collins’ work a few years before 1998 with The Art of Drowning, and while I loved that book, I fell completely in love with Picnic, Lightning. There are some truly wonderful pieces here, such as “The Death of the Hat,” “Looking West,” “I Go Back to the House For a Book,” and “Japan.” These pieces exemplify his greatest gift, which is to build elegant, colloquial poems that focus on common enough topics, but contain a unique twist that changes the ordinary into the extraordinary. I believe this is his finest collection, and one that everyone who appreciates literature of any form or genre would enjoy.
In recent years, although his continued popularity and sales figures would suggest otherwise, I fear Billy Collins has begun to write a little too much like “Billy Collins.” The twists and elegance of his early work has occasionally become a model he’s returned to a few times too often. This is not an uncommon problem for writers who find themselves suddenly thrust into realms of notoriety rarely seen in their respective fields – being a two-time Poet Laureate and national bestseller is a rare thing in American poetry. His more recent work feels as if he’s trying to recapture something, rather than trying to discover some new element of his craft. So, if you’ve only read one of his more recent collections, go back to earlier works such as Picnic, Drowning, Questions About Angels, or the wonderful, collected edition Sailing Alone Around the Room.