This part of your post , Sally, helped me see both what I had been missing and (somewhat shamefully) what it was I was admiring about the work of Billy Collins:
The thing is, though, that this isnt really like reciting poetry. Im not sure what these poems look like on the page, but they dont seem to be rhymed or metered (though to be fair, many poets read right through their line endings, and you dont know that poems rhyme unless you chance to read them). These poems play on the ear like storieshilariously funny stories, which is really why we remember them, but stories. In short, they might as well be prose.
What I seem to admire about Collinsthough I’m a bit embarrassed to admit itis both his facility as a storyteller and his use of prose as poetry. Brandon at Siris revealing he can be as insightful about poetry as about philosophy adds to your point by noting that Collins lines could often be “part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home . . . And you will have lost nothing.” He makes the reasonable point that such prosaic language is fair game for the poet, but explains how it differs from verse, particular in contemporary poetry:
[C]ollins is basically writing rhetorical, declamatory prose in narrow columns, this shows that we have no proper appreciation for the power and potential of prose. This is true of much of contemporary poetry, especially what often goes by the name of ‘free verse’. I’ve often heard it asked whether free verse is really poetry; of course it is. It would be a more serious question to ask whether free verse is distinctively verse.
The entire post is worth reading and builds upon your own explanation, Sally. I especially resonated with his point about how what storyteller Garrison Keillor does that is similar to Collin’s work:
Keillor does not magically become poetry by being scattered on the page; Collins would not magically cease to be poetry by being written across the page. They don’t have the same style, but they are doing the same thing, and what they are doing is the poetic work of good prose. They just have different tastes in graphic design.