Customer Reviews: Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems
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on April 5, 2011
Billy Collins has become such a poetic institution -- widely regarded as the most popular poet working today and known for his accessibility, as well as the enjoyability & lightness of his verse -- that it can be sometimes it be easy to forget that Billy Collins is a human being, a poet who is still exploring, experimenting and engaging.

In "Horoscopes for the Dead," these two Billy Collins -- the beloved poetic institution and still evolving writer -- are somersaulting all over each other.

For fans of iconic Billy Collins work, there is a lot to love in this collection. There are beautiful and clever pieces about house guests, beloved dogs, walks in the woods, poetry workshops and poetry readings, dinner parties, dinner guests and sometimes just dinners. You get the sense, as you may have in previous collections, that Collins is conspiring with you in some wonderful morning kitchen, and that you just happen to be the lucky recipient of his well-turned phrases and well-timed thoughts.

And yet, there are poems in here that are likely to surprise.

In this collection -- even more so than his last, "Ballistics" -- Collins seems fixated on the darker elements of life. While "Ballistics" explored the shadows of heartbreak, "Horoscopes for the Dead" seems to intent on meeting mortality in its eyes. In pieces like the book's first poem, "Grave" -- in which finds Collins laying down on the graves of his parents, hoping to communicate with them in some way -- to the book's title poem -- where the absurdity of horoscopes is juxtaposed with a longing for passed friends -- Collins seems to find himself musing about death in a variety of ways. Even the death of marriage, which he describes as a "the department of lost husbands / or sometimes, as now, the department of dark and pouring rain."

But this collection also finds Collins lost in lust, snapping with stubbornness, itchy with frustration, and there is even a poem recalling his first acid trip -- all things that perhaps aren't associated with iconic Collins poetry. But to me, that's a good thing, a healthy sign for any poet that he can still delight and surprise, that he isn't letting his poetry be dictated by what his audience might want, but instead by what he wants to share, the darkness and the light.

I am happy to add "Horoscopes for the Dead" to my collection of Collins books, and selfishly & eagerly await his next one as well.
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Billy Collins has said that the romantic poets killed off humor and replaced sex with landscapes. He also maintains that much poetry is about death and that we should read it for pleasure rather than analyzing it to death. (I believe that is a close paraphrase of what I heard him say about the poetry of Emily Dickinson in a recent radio interview.) He states, furthermore, that a poet should neither show all his cards nor place them all face down. This most popular of contemporary poets (United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003) certainly practices what he preaches. Although many of the poems in his latest collection HOROSCOPES FOR THE DEAD deal with death, he doesn't forget to amuse us, throw in an erotic poem or two and make his poems accessible.

The poem "Feedback" will make your smile: "The woman who wrote from Phoenix/after my reading there/to tell me they were all still talking about it/just wrote again/to tell me that they had stopped."

The award for the erotic (with humor) goes to "Genesis" where the narrator wonders how it would have been if Eve had been created before Adam and considers
What life would be like as one of your ribs--
To be with you all the time,
riding under your blouse and skin,
caged with the soft weight of yours breasts. . .

Mr. Collins often writes about dogs. I particularly like "Two Creatures." I submit it to the critics who find his poems not deep enough.

And because her [his dog's] eyes always follow me,
She must wonder, too, why

I shift from place to place,
From the couch to the sink
Or the pencil sharpener on the wall--

Two creatures bound by wonderment
Though unlike her, I have never once worried
After letting her out the back door

That she would take off in the car
And leave me to die
Behind the solid locked doors of this house.

Finally of the many poems on the subject of death "Grave" is hauntingly beautiful. The narrator visits the graves of his mother and father and asks them what they think of his new glasses. His mother says they make him "look very scholarly" but his father remains silent:

But he would say nothing,
And I could not find a silence

Among the 100 Chinese silences
That would fit the one that he created
Even though I was the one

Who had just made up the business
Of the 100 Chinese silences--
The Silence of the Night Boat

And the Silence of the Lotus,
Cousin to the Silence of the Temple Bell
Only deeper and softer, like petals, at its farthest edges.

Mr. Collins, with I suspect a twinkle in his eye, says he is grateful to "George Green, who assigned most of these poems a passing grade." I would give them all an "A."
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on November 13, 2011
I enjoy poetry, but I can't always explain why. When I read poetry, I do it for enjoyment and not as any type of scholarly exercise. So why do I feel guilty, sometimes, for liking Billy Collins so much? I guess because when I read it, I don't think to myself, oh now I'm going to try to dissect this obscure poem and wring some meaning from it. Instead, I just enjoy what I'm reading. They say the sign of true genius is making the difficult look easy. I don't think there is any English language poet doing that better than Collins. His wit is sharp, he observations are seemingly simple, but when I really analyze what he is doing and realize how wonderful his word choices are, I really see a sort of genius there.

This book of poetry, Horoscopes for the Dead, is no different. Billy treats us to his dark humor, his light humor, his humor humor, and his wonderful ability to put concise words to paper, one after another the absolute best he can. And the result is a treat. Buy this book! Buy all his books.
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on June 8, 2011
I have read most of Collins other poetry books and do really like his poetry. This book however is just plain dull. The cover is great. Too bad the poems inside don't match it. There are a lot of observation poems -- I saw ______________ and it reminds me of _________. Just not fun to read. A few of them are okay, but none of the poems are as good as in his previous books. If you really want to read this see if you can get it from your library first to make sure you really do want to read it. This is not his finest work.
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on January 29, 2016
When I was teaching middle school English I used Billy Collins’s poetry to break students away from their dependence on Shel Silverstein and the notion that all poetry must rhyme. I found Mr. Collins’s poetry to be accessible, memorable, and relatable. Twelve years later, I still find that to be true, however, I must admit that as I read more of his poetry I marvel at the way he packs meaning into such seemly innocent scenes.

When Horoscopes for the Dead was released in 2011, I picked up a copy of it out of my loyalty to a poet that has influenced my life and career; however, I’m embarrassed to say that it was placed on my shelf without being read, and I just found it while searching for another book to read.

I somehow think Mr. Collins’s would like that scenario.

This collection is the poet’s ninth, and I think his best. Mr. Collins, as usual, gives us much to think about in these poems, and continues to be a master of the shift. It is his ability to move his reader between seemingly dissimilar ideas which has long been a strength as well as a trademark. It can be seen best in a poem such as “Thank-You Notes”:

Thank-You Notes

"Under the vigilant eye of my mother
I had to demonstrate my best penmanship
by thanking Uncle Gerry for the toy soldiers -

little red members of the Coldstream Guards -
and thanking Aunt Helen for the pistol and holster,

but now I am writing other notes
alone at a small cherry desk
with a breeze coming in an open window,"

Then Mr. Collins’s shifts to general thank-you notes to all around him …

"thanking everyone I happened to see
on my long walk to the post office today

and anyone who ever game me directions
or placed a hand on my shoulder,
or cut my hair or fixed my car."

And then we shift into the main thought of the poem …

"And while I’m at it,
thanks to everyone who happened to die
on the same day that I was born.

Thank you for stepping aside to make room for me,
for giving up your seat,
getting out of the way to be blunt."

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! He will eventually recognize that he too will one day be “giving up” his seat for someone else to take. Thus, we are taken from a simple subject we all can relate to, being forced to write thank you notes, to something much more impactful, pondering life and death.

There are numerous moments of self-discovery to be had while reading this volume, and I expect I’ll pick it up and reread it again and again. From a poem about dreaming people and birds have changed heads, but not bodies, to reading the horoscope of a deceased person and using that as a commentary on the individual’s life, this collection ranges far and wide through the human experience.
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on March 5, 2013
See him in TED. Read every poem of his carefully. Then read your favorites again. He used to be poet laureate of the United States and he helps us remember that poetry matters. A single poem can put you in a good mood for up to 2 1/2 days.
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on December 13, 2014
I picked up a poetry book by Billy Collins years ago and, though I didn't purchase it then, I kept a mental note of his words. Now, I'm an obituary writer and this title grabbed my attention. I read only the first poem and was hooked, so I purchased the book.

While that first poem, "Grave," is definitely a 5-star poem, not many in the book were for me. There were a handful of 5-star poems, a few 4-star and many others I won't remember (whereas "Grave" and a few others will stay with me). It's an easy read but nothing I'll be dying to read again. Part of me was disappointed there weren't more poems dealing with death (given the title, I assumed many would have this basis) but in fact a lot of them didn't really seem to go with the flow of the rest of them.
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on October 21, 2014
Billy Collins is a bloody genius. This isn't his best collection (although I love the title and cover art), but ALL of his stuff is worth reading. Reading the occasional Collins poem is an ideal way to transcend the tedium of a long flight. And his books are lightweight, too.
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on September 8, 2011
I expect to laugh when I read Billy Collins' poetry. Sitting down with his previous books generally involves some lovely moments of thoughtful reflection, intermingled with quite a bit of chuckling--and a few downright belly laughs. This latest collection, however, has a more serious bent. He still toys with words and makes use of his pointed wit, but the content and tone of the poems are heavier. The poems themselves are still wonderful--poignant, pithy, and unexpected. But the poet who brought us rollicking and playful poems such as "Marginalia," "The Lanyard," and "The Trouble with Poetry" is now delving into deeper themes.

The title hints at what lies within. We find the poet standing at the graves of his parents, musing on the thought of unborn children he might have had, comparing the span of his life to that of a mayfly. Even a poem that opens with a playful meditation on the prevention of baldness ends with a wistful longing to crawl into the lap of a now deceased grandfather.

I still prefer Billy Collins' writing when it makes me laugh. But I would not have wanted to miss this collection of poems. It contains some real gems. I will never again look at half wilted tulips without thinking of them as having "lost their grip on themselves."
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on May 6, 2011
Billy Collins' latest collection of poems does not disappoint. Collins makes poetry of ordinary things and writes with an ear to the reader. He blends many emotions and often adds a sense of wry humor. He is my favorite modern poet and I treasure his books. This is a review of a book purchased from Amazon.
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