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Picnic, Lightning – Billy Collins

Picnic, Lighting is Billy Collin’s sixth collection of poetry. The book begins with the poem “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal” and a quotation from Yeats: “A poet…never speaks directly, as to someone at the breakfast table.” Collins devotes the poems in this book to proving Yeats completely wrong.

His poems are universal, simple, surprising, observant, unobscured and rewarding. The writing in un-gimicky and relies on the relateability of the subject matter. His poems are firmly set in the every-day, but their strength comes from their intense dedication to the observable world and their ability to derive significance from the ordinary. Collins speaks to you in a warm voice, like a friend with a hint of amusement in his voice.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,

my middle name,

and the meaning of money,

I will still carry in my pocket

the small coin of that moment,

minted in the kingdom

that we pace through every day.

Collins uses ordinary circumstances “that we pace through every day:” a breakfast table, a backyard, a driveway, on walks, planes, trains, in a bedroom, a study, to convey extraordinary understanding. He loves the morning and microcosms. He excels in the studying the under-noticed. “In the Room of a Thousand Miles” summarizes Collins’ poetic identity nicely:

“She thinks I ought to be opening up

my aperture to let in

the wild rhododendrons of Ireland,

the sun-bleached stadiums of Rome,

that waterclock in Bruges –

the world beyond my inkwell.

…And then – just between you and me –

[I] pick up my thin pen

and write down that bird I hear outside,

the one that sings,


then sings again.”

Collins seems to make sense of the world in this way, and in reading his work, so do we.

-Johannah O’Keefe

One Comment

  1. Alyssa Johnson wrote:

    While I guess there have always been poems I liked, I think it may have been Billy Collins in my tenth grade creative writing class who actually made me want to write poetry myself. (Ironic, really, because it wasn’t until a little later that I discovered his poem “The Trouble With Poetry”, which addresses just that sensation.)

    At any rate, I agree with the way you sum up his work, from the way he makes sense of the world to his yen for writing about “the morning and microcosms”–facts that hold true not only in this book, but throughout many others by him as well. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but I read somewhere once that he starts each poem accessibly, like an invitation in, and then (for lack of a better way of putting it) slips into the more “poetic” by the poem’s end, because he thinks that if you start a poem “too deep” (probably not at all his descriptor) then it’s hard to entice someone–especially someone who may be afraid of poetry–to read more. And, really, I think that’s a pretty neat style, because it’s designed to make people want to read poetry and, thereby, become less afraid of it.

    Maybe we should sum Billy Collins up as the cure for poemphobia? Just prescribe a couple of his poems to wary readers and perhaps they’ll move on to other poets and become poets themselves. After all, that doesn’t sound like a terrible fate, having the world filled with more people creating poems.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink