WHY IS BILLY COLLINS POPULAR?

Because he’s classical. 

The world of literature is small, rounded by misty pre-history on one end, and mad post-modernism on the other, with Greeks and Romans and all their imitators, Donne, Pope, Shelley, Tennyson, and Eliot, in-between.

We sometimes kid ourselves that this iron limit doesn’t exist, but the true classicist knows it does, and is always resigned to this limit, and, placidly nursing the secret, learns quicker than his fellows, and does so with honor, and a smile.

The fickle modernist, proud of his infinite world, (here comes another boring, eye-lash intricacy) grinds his teeth at the classical popularity.

Horace, like Collins, wrote often of other poets—not passively, in mere manic, modernist, observation—but socially, playfully, and self-consciously, making the admiration a part of his own art:

Borne by strong winds, Pindar the Theban swan soars
high above, Antonious,  through the lofty realms
Of cloud: while I, in another fashion—
just like a small bee
sipping each sweet blossom of thyme and roving
through the thick groves, over the slopes of Tibur
rich with streams—so, cell upon cell, I labor
moulding my poems.

In Collins’ latest, “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ By John Donne,” in November’s Poetry, classical tropes are on display: memorizing a well-known poem, engaging with the whole work (not a fragment), and assimilating that work optimistically, romantically, mystically, ecstatically:

Every reader loves the way he tells off
the sun, shouting busy old fool
into the English skies even though they
were likely cloudy on that seventeenth-century morning.

And it’s a pleasure to spend this sunny day
pacing the carpet and repeating the words,
feeling the syllables lock into rows
until I can stand and declare,
the book held closed by my side,
that hours, days, and months are but the rags of time.

But after a few steps into stanza number two,
wherein the sun is blinded by his mistress’s eyes,
I can feel the first one begin to fade
like sky-written letters on a windy day.

And by the time I have taken in the third,
the second is likewise gone, a blown-out candle now,
a wavering line of acrid smoke.

So it’s not until I leave the house
and walk three times around this hidden lake
that the poem begins to show
any interest in walking by my side.

Then, after my circling,
better than the courteous dominion
of her being all states and him all princes,

better than love’s power to shrink
the wide world to the size of a bedchamber,

and better even than the compression
of all that into the rooms of these three stanzas
is how, after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now, contracted into a little spot within.

In a loving tribute to the Roman classical poets, Poets In A Landscape by the scholar and translator Gilbert Highet (d. 1978), we are told

“Except to schoolboys, the odes of Horace have been, for nearly two thousand years, one of the best-loved books of poetry ever written.  They are one of the few absolutely central and unchallengable classics in Latin and in the whole of western literature.  For many generations, a man was not considered educated unless he knew them.”

Highet also points out that to translate the complex music of Horace is impossible; the attempt to translate in an utterly faithful fashion crashes and burns; the best way to render Horace is to write like Collins, steadily, sincerely, and without fireworks.

Billy Collins is our Horace.  This is why he is popular.

Poetry’s popularity does not, and will never, derive from the experimental; poetry’s appeal springs from the classical; for the classical is not old, but  human.

And here, then, is the Donne poem, which (O! clever Collins!) is necessary for the Collins poem—which forever takes after the Donne:

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

She’s all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

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