By DEBORAH DURHAM-VICHR
Billy Collins ended his reading of 21 poems May 7 with a shy bow to the standing ovation in the Coolidge Auditorium, as if still reluctant to accept the praise that has been bestowed on him over the last two years as the Library's—and hence the nation's—Poet Laureate.
Collins' reading was his last "official" Library appearance in the role that he was appointed to in 2001; the event also closed the Library's Poetry and Literature Center's spring series of readings.
The mixed, packed audience was a testament to this poet laureate's popularity—an appeal that often has Collins compared with Robert Frost. Professionals in suits, students in biker boots, elderly people with canes, the famous and the unknowns; all came to hear Collins read.
As Prosser Gifford, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, put it in his closing to the program: "Everybody loves Billy."
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington opened the evening by recounting Collins' contributions over the last two years. "[Collins] has brought humor and very deft intelligence" as the 11th Poet Laureate, he said.
Collins' project Poetry 180, a Web site to promote the reading of daily poems in high schools across America (www.loc.gov/poetry/180/), has taken the work of the laureate, who is charged with expanding the role of poetry in national life, to new heights, Billington noted. He added that Collins' project builds on former laureates' efforts, such as Robert Hass' River of Words contest and Pinsky's Favorite Poem project. The Poetry 180 Web site gets 2 million hits a month, and has garnered more than 20 million hits since its launch in January 2002.
Billington also lauded the poem "The Names," which Collins wrote in commemoration of the victims of September 11, 2001, and read at a special session of Congress on Sept. 6, 2002. Billington added that Collins is a "great voice of our country."
Collins thanked Billington for appointing him, and in trademark humor expressed his gratitude to those who helped him in his work at the Poetry and Literature Center, such as Jennifer Rutland and Prosser Gifford.
"One of the accusations leveled at me, besides making sense, is that I am conscious of the presence of a reader," said Collins as he began his reading. "The reader I imagine is an imaginary friend who has grown up with me."
Collins, whose choice of "Billy" as moniker hints at his penchant for simplicity, is known for writing poetry that, as he says, "has a very open door policy." He writes about ordinary things and situations with a surprising twist, as in his poem "On Turning Ten," which he read.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
As I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
Time to turn the first big number.
(from "The Art of Drowning," 1995)
Audience member Patricia Dwyer, a professor of English at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.V., who drove three hours to hear Collins read, explained the poet's appeal: "He is so accessible to the students I teach, but he also challenges them to think beyond the surface of the poem—that's a really hard line to walk. He's funny, mysterious and inspiring, all at once."
Collins, a professor of English for 30 years at Lehman College, City University of New York, also has broken records for selling poetry, and his penultimate book, "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems" (Random House, 2001), has sold more than 100,000 copies. Not bad for someone who started at 40 to publish "real books" of poetry, eschews poetry workshops, doesn't rewrite, and invented a new form, the "paradelle," to poke fun at the artifice of poetry, Collins pointed out to his audience.
"[A paradelle] is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d'oc love poetry of the 11th century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical." Some in poetry circles took the bait, believing that Collins' invention was an historical form.
Collins says he represents a break with the modernists, who believed poetry had to be difficult in order to be worthwhile. He has said that Poetry 180's goal, with its wide selection of poetry from all genres, is not to analyze, to purposely not ask questions after a poem, but "just simply to read a poem a day."
His own gift became clear as Collins read the final poem, "Night Club," touching the audience even as it drew laughs:
You are so beautiful and I am a fool to be
in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
And you are a fool to be in love with me, …
At this point, the audience was all grins. But soon a hush fell with the last lines of the poem:
We are all so foolish,
My long bebop solo begins by saying,
So damn foolish
We have become beautiful without even
(from "The Art of Drowning," 1995)
Deborah Durham-Vichr is a contract writer/editor in the Public Affairs Office.