Named “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins is celebrated for his humorous, accessible ouevre, laced with introspective observations on everyday life. Born in New York City in 1941, he was working as an English Professor in the Bronx when he began publishing poetry in the late ’70s. But it wasn’t until his fourth book, Questions about Angels, released at the age of 50, that he was launched into the literary spotlight.
Following the success of his subsequent collections, The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning, Collins reached a level of fame nearly unheard of in contemporary poetry, underscored by sold-out readings and a six-figure advance upon switching publishers in the late ’90s. He was crowned the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003 and New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, and has consistently used his platform to champion the power of poetry to heal, transform, and connect.
Writing in a playful, conversational style, Collins’ work displays a deep affinity for the mundanities of middle-class America. A firm believer in getting poems “off the shelves and into public life,” he shared some of his pieces set to animated shorts in the 2012 TedTalk Everyday moments, caught in time, and encourages audiences to find deeper meaning in the quotidian in his Masterclass on reading and writing poetry.
Reflecting on the literature of his life in The Week, Collins recommended epic poems by Simic and Wordsworth alongside Nabokov’s Lolita and an introduction to the ancient Japanese tradition of jisei. Explore his favorite books below, and check out the reading lists of other great writers here.
Billy Collins’ Reading List
New and Selected Poems by Charles Simic
“Simic acolytes like me will find the breadth of this hefty volume irresistible. Newcomers will meet one of the clearest yet most bizarre and mysterious poets of our time. These poems leave me with feelings of stunned admiration and jealousy.” -BC
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
“In this classic work of French phenomenology, Bachelard examines the symbolic and emotional meanings of such spaces as attics, drawers, closets, and nests. The book moves us easily back and forth from deep theory to everyday experience. The hiding places of childhood are seen as incubators for the imagination, and you might never look at an elevator the same way again.” -BC
“Wordsworth’s grand poem, an ‘autobiographical epic,’ broke new literary ground. Milton would have considered the subject small potatoes, but The Prelude, shown here in three different editions, elegantly dramatizes the loss of childhood innocence and the gaining of maturity.” -BC
“For centuries, Zen monks and haiku writers have put their final words into tiny three-line poems. Death has long been a favorite minor chord in poetry, and in each of these little exhalations, it rings with wearily beautiful, unmistakable finality.” -BC
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (also rec’d by Bradley Cooper, Cheryl Strayed, David Bowie, Jo Nesbø, Kim Gordon, Martha Wainwright, Michael Stipe, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Phoebe Waller-Bridge & Richey Edwards)
“Nabokov demonstrated how brilliantly ironic prose could lift a perverse longing to the level of great literature. Humbert puts himself on trial, turning his reader into jury member, as he describes his pursuit of a nymphet, his flight from justice, and the menace of his rival.” -BC
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (also rec’d by David Bowie & Will Self)
“This is one of the best titles to drop when asked what you’re currently reading, and also a revealing, radical study of our divided brains. According to Jaynes, people who hear voices (be they mystics or schizophrenics) may just be listening to one side of the brain talking to the other on a delayed loop. Something to think about next time you find yourself thinking out loud, or just thinking period.” -BC
(via The Week; photo by Jeffrey Thompson)