posted 2011-04-27 12:00:37

Billy the Bard: Two-Time Poet Laureate Billy Collins pulls in a full crowd

Billy the Bard

Two-Time Poet Laureate Billy Collins pulls in a full crowd

Ming Fearon


In an era that is increasingly being defined by the unbridled nature of the Internet, thoughtfully crafted sentences are becoming more and more difficult to find. Seeking respite from the transience of digital media, dozens of members of the Hunter College community packed themselves into the Lang Recital Hall on the evening of Apr. 11 to savor the words of poet Billy Collins.

Poetry comes in many forms, but a good poem always conveys that which is seemingly ineffable. Mr. Collins, who turned seventy years old in March, has made a career of writing the kind of poetry that hits the reader in the gut with the force of a truck but with the subtlety of a whisper. He is by no means underappreciated in the poetry community; in fact, it is not a stretch to say that in this particular community, he is something of a rock star. Among his many achievements is the title of two-time Poet Laureate of the U.S. (from 2001–2003). He was then crowned New York State Poet from 2004–2006. In 1999, The New York Times dubbed him the “most popular poet in America,” then reported in 2001 that Mr. Collins’s appearance at the Poetry Center of Chicago “caused the literary equivalent of Beatlemania.”

A decade later, the poet’s talents continue to pack auditoriums. Mr. Collins’s reading was the third of Hunter’s Spring 2011 Distinguished Writers Series, presented by President Raab and the MFA Program in Creative Writing. When Mr. Collins took the stage he informed the audience that he is currently on his first book tour to promote Horoscopes for the Dead, a poetry collection that had been released six days prior to the reading.

After reading several poems from the book — including one about spring to commemorate the warm weather that day — he introduced a poem set in Europe, entitled “Palermo.”

“I’ve never had a Fulbright, so I didn’t write a Fulbright poem. A Fulbright poem is set in Europe and involves fountains… this is a poem about heat and perceptions of consciousness.”

Throughout the reading the poet maintained a deadpan delivery style that emphasized the wry bemusement inherent in his writing, though at the end of some remarks he cracked a small smile, belying his façade of seriousness. The poet’s trademark sense of humor was present throughout the evening and nearly every sentence he spoke was punctuated by the laughter of the audience.

While Mr. Collins’s poems are often irreverent and even sardonic, he labeled himself “hopelessly optimistic.”

“There is a particular Turkish proverb that I live by,” Mr. Collins said. “It goes like this: ‘When the axe is taken into the woods, all the trees think, at least the handle is one of us.’”

His optimism resonates in the softness of his more romantic poems. In “Genesis,” a poem named after the opening book of the Bible, Mr. Collins defies the accepted creation story and postulates that Adam was formed from one of Eve’s ribs. As he read the poem aloud to the audience, the listeners became privy to the intimate image of Mr. Collins admiring his sleeping wife’s ribs, his “fingers doing the crazy numbering that comes of love.”

During the subsequent Q & A session, an audience member inquired as to Mr. Collins’s writing methods. “I write when it comes to me,” the poet responded. “I don’t keep hours. If I did I’d probably get a real job and make some money. I don’t need to be in my cork-lined study with my jacket de smoking, as they say in France.”

Another audience member questioned the poet about his main literary influences. Mr. Collins named the late Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and, in a perfect encapsulation of Mr. Collins’s plainspoken tendencies, recited “Bacon and Eggs,” his “very favorite” poem by Nemerov: “The chicken contributes / But the pig gives its all.”

The Hunter College Distinguished Writers Series will continue on May 9 with a reading by author Darin Strauss (Chang and Eng, The Real McCoy, More Than It Hurts You, and the memoir Half a Life) and culminate with a reading by novelist Nicole Krauss (Man Walks into a Room, The History of Love, and Great House) on May 16.