Bonnie’s Book Bytes: Billy Collins’s “Ballistics”

Bonnie Godas

The term “ballistics” doesn’t come up often in conversation, save those discussions on missiles or today’s prevalence of warfare. An even better discussion on ballistics would revolve around Billy Collins’s new book of poetry called “Ballistics.”

As we well know, a ballistic missile is a projectile that is controlled on ascent and falls freely on descent. This seems to parallel Collins’s writing style. Collins explains that his style of poetry logically unfolds but “the progress is usually toward something that is beyond my sense of logic.” Hence, free falling.

It is also evident that Collins’s style can show a personal side of situations, where readers can empathize with the author. Collins’s poetry is detailed oriented but not to the point that his work becomes too wordy or tedious. When he reveals his feelings on a personal subject, he describes the situation with the perfect words to keep the reader’s complete attention and interest. He ultimately makes his reader feel that there is a personal conversation going on, just between the two of them.

In the title poem “Ballistics”, Collins sets the scene and questions why a bullet was going through a particular book and not another. He sees it going through the book of a writer of whom he didn’t really care for, perhaps free falling like a missile through that poet’s book. That is his view, but Collins lets the reader form his own conclusions by giving information and his interpretation.

Collins’s use of humor in his writing is timeless and sometimes satirical. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” taken from The Apple That Astonished Paris, he comments on how a student tries to find the meaning of a poem: “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

In “Genealogy”, Collins talks about his ambivalence with death and entertains the idea of joining his dead Irish relatives. The cultural and historical references he uses in “Genealogy” are eerie, realistic, and take the reader back in time for a while; then, just as a ballistic missile, the poem changes course and Collins quickly brings the reader back to the present.

Billy Collins has published several books on poetry, beginning with “Pokerface” in 1977. In 2001, he was appointed the American Poet Laureate, sharing this honor with past poets such as Robert Penn Warren and Robert Frost. Collins has been a teacher of poetry for many years and particularly encourages high school students to explore this wonderful genre of writing. In his website, titled Poetry 180, he has personally selected poems that will hopefully inspire students to find pleasure in reading them. I know Billy Collins certainly has inspired me and I now have learned to appreciate and enjoy poetry more than ever.