By YVONNE FRENCH
A Billy Collins reading is an antidote for today's troubled and tumultuous world. He condenses humor into the last couple of beats before a pause in his poems, which is particularly effective when read aloud. There's a certain ba-duh-bump to the meter of his verse.
He drew more than a few laughs at the opening reading of his second term as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress on Oct. 9. His droll humor comes through in many of his poems, including "No Time":
In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.
Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.
Collins, a professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, seems not to have left the classroom, although he is on leave while he serves as the nation's lead poetry advocate. The Montpelier Room audience of about 175 was full of adoring college students as well as the regular crowd of cultured retirees and poetry lovers. Collins instructed them to take up poetry, to try writing with respect and humor about one's dead parents, for example.
He advised them against writing a master's thesis about his propensity for including salt shakers and pepper mills in poems … and matches, and mice, and, in the words of Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, "death, light, house and home, all in imperturbable words that take flight into dream. He transmutes the quotidian moment into surprise and reflection."
Collins said that he tries to "net" and "arrest" a moment. "I have a crackpot analogy that if matter is made of atoms and you accelerate it, smash it, and the result is energy, [similarly] time is made of moments, and if you smash the moment by bearing down your attention on it, then moments are able to release energy."
He did just that when he read "Love," from his most recent book, "Nine Horses" (Random House, 2002). He said he was riding on a train and took a verbal photograph of what he saw, a young man greeting a girl and watching her place her cello in an overhead rack:
I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
in the way the eyes of saints are painted
when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God.
Collins explained that "Nine Horses" is about the "piece of art I have in my house that ended up serving as the cover." He wrote in the title poem that the tableau of nine white horse heads "looks down upon these daily proceedings … down upon this table and these glasses, / the furled napkins, / the evening wedding of the knife and the fork."
He got the biggest laugh for his poem, "The Lanyard," which juxtaposes all his mother ever did for him with his gift of a lanyard of woven plastic that he made her at summer camp. He said, "Billy boy believes that you can also make an equally useless ceramic mug with no handle. … Among mothers, those are known as 'lanyard holders.'"
Though he read from three of his six books of poetry, Collins did not read his commemorative poem, "The Names," which he wrote at the request of Congress for its special session at Federal Hall in New York City on Sept. 6, 2002. "The Names" alphabetically chronicles some of the names of those killed on September 11, 2001.
In his first year as poet laureate, Collins launched a new Web site called Poetry180 (www.loc.gov/poetry/180), designed to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of poetry in America's high schools. The site contains the text of 180 poems that Collins selected (one for each day of the school year), suggestions for different ways to present a poem in a school setting, and guidance on how best to read a poem aloud. As he said at the time, "Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless, and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience."
Collins said that his next project is to make poetry available on one of the channels available to air travelers through headphones, and he has already made some contacts with the in-flight entertainment industry to move the project forward.
Collins may be the perfect poet laureate for our time—thoughtful, ironic, intelligent and understandable. And it would be best to catch one of his readings before he does what he describes in some of his poems: recede.
From "Royal Aristocrat," homage to an old typewriter, he read, "Still, at least I was making noise, / adding to the great secretarial din, / that chorus of clacking and bells, / thousands of desks receding into the past." And in "Albany," another train poem in "Nine Horses," he wrote:
As I sat on the sunny side of train
looking out the window at the Hudson River,
topped with a riot of ice,
it appeared to the untrained eye
that the train was whizzing north along the rails
that link New York City and Niagara
But as the winter light glared
off the white river and the snowy fields,
I knew that I was as motionless as a man on a couch
and that the things I was gazing
with affection, I should add—
were really the ones that were doing the moving,
running as fast as they could
on their invisible legs
in the opposite direction of the train. …
As one reviewer wrote of Collins recently, "He could be our next Robert Frost."
Yvonne French is senior writer-editor in the Office of the Librarian.