Ballistics and Other Resources for Bringing Billy Collins to Students

by Julie SwarstadBallistics by Billy Collins

Born in 1941, Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003.  He has published eight collections of poetry, including Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House 2001), The Trouble with Poetry (Random House 2005), and most recently Ballistics (Random House 2008).  Collins is the recipient of numerous awards including Poetry's 1994 Poet of the Year Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.  He is currently a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College at the City University of New York.

Collins will be reading for the UA Poetry Center's 50th Anniversary Celebration at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus on Sunday, November 7th at 3 p.m.  Tickets are available through UA Presents.

Billy Collins has been called "America's Most Popular Poet" by Time Magazine, reflecting the enormous appeal his work has for a variety of audiences.  Ballistics, his latest collection, is a great choice for introducing students to this former Poet Laureate's work. In Ballistics, like in much of his other writing, Collins begins each poem in a familiar or comfortable place, but by the poem's end some disorienting turn or transformation has occurred, leaving the reader to work through the change.  "Lucky for some of us," Collins writes, "poetry is a place where [two things] are true at once, / where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction."  Collins' poems never malfunction, transforming everyday occurrences into points of departure for new reflections.

Writing itself is one of the major themes Collins explores in Ballistics.  Poetry is compared to "just the wind / over that field stirring things that we will never see."  He also writes a great deal about other poets and writers; other writers' poems "peer down from the trees / or bark at [his] passing in the guise of local dogs."  Collins pulls together a startling array of very ordinary things but then shows us what they have to say about poetry or how they are representing poetry in some way.  He does this in a way that is often humorous but always focused and sharp, inviting further exploration of the ideas he brings to light.

While reading Collins' work directly can be one way to introduce him to students, Collins poetry exists in a variety of other formats available online.  A few of the many available Collins resources are listed below:

Poetry 180: Available for free through the Library of Congress website or as a print edition (Random House 2003), this collection was created by Collins during his tenure as Poet Laureate as a way to introduce high school students to poetry with a poem a day.  Poetry 180 is a collection of simple, straightforward poems by contemporary poets; new poems are occasionally added to the online edition, keeping the collection fresh.  Collins envisioned the poems as an introduction to poetry for high school students; they would encounter the poem without having to analyze or discuss it.  Whether you want to use the collection for a year or a day,

is a wonderful assortment of poems for readers or listeners of any age.

Billy Collins Action Poetry: Various visual artists have created short, animated films set to a handful of Collins' poems.  The animations can also be found on, but the quality of the videos is better on the original website.  Be sure to watch "The Country," "Forgetfulness," and "No Time."

YouTube: A large collection of video recordings of Collins reading his own work can be found on  Collins often gives a short introduction before he reads, providing viewers with a bit of context for the poem.  "Litany" and "Rain" are two excellent video recordings.

National Public Radio: Throughout his impressive career, Collins has appeared on many NPR radio shows, talking about his own poetry and poetry in general.  A simple search for "Billy Collins" on the NPR website will return a high number of hits.  "Billy Collins on 'The Trouble with Poetry" is highly recommended.

Created on: 
Monday, October 25, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents