In the Enid Haupt Conservatory, The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens was in full swing. Children’s screams of delight and laughter and adults “ahhhs” accompanied the beauty and splendor of the magnificent miniature recreations designed and staged amongst flowering plants and foliage by Applied Imagination and its helper elves.
At the show, which will run until January 19, trains of all gauges and styles and shapes zoom down bridges, through tunnels, around waterfalls and disappear, then re-emerge careening along cascades and bubbling brooks with no destination or purpose except to astonish and charm. The locomotives and cable cars and trolleys trundle past “Old New York” mansions and landmarks like the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue and the too lovely to be seen past 150 years, Penn Station (both have been torn down). Iconic skyscrapers like The Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center are recognizable favorites. Replicas of upstate New York mansions like Frank Church’s Olanna (a magnificent and exotic structure with incomparable views of the Hudson River), are also featured.
On the alternate side of the gardens in the Library’s Ross Hall, all was still except the measured voice of Billy Collins (former US Poet Laureate), reading his poems about trains and winter scenes and snow. There was even a poem about his cat. Fans new and old listened raptly and sometimes laughed at Collins’ humor. At other times the silence settled into a profound stillness and you could “hear a pin drop” as Collins’ phrases reached their mark.
This is the second time that Billy Collins was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America to read his work as part of the annual celebration of The Holiday Train Show. The Poetry Society has been collaborating with the New York Botanical Gardens providing poems on placards throughout the gardens in concert with major exhibits. As a companion to The Holiday Train Show, this is part of the “Poetry for Every Season: Holiday Poetry Walk.” Indeed, there is poetry for every season as there are exhibits for every season at the NYBG. And the pleasure of such exhibits and the companion poetry displayed is that it helps take us away from brawling political issues and the sticky cultural and personal problems of our lives and allows us to step back, take a healthy breather, and rest our overstimulated psyches for just a brief moment in time.
On your walk to the Haupt Conservatory, to see The Holiday Train Show, you will notice large placards with poems printed on them. These are some of the works that Billy Collins read for us this past weekend, on December 13th. You also have the opportunity to hear his poems when you walk along Perennial Garden Way. When I interviewed Karen Daubman, Director of Exhibitions and Seasonal Displays at NYBG, she mentioned, “There are audio tours so you can call in on your cell phones and listen to Billy Collins speak about his poems to give it a really nice touch.” Daubman also told me the NYBG had such a good time with Billy Collins last year, they decided to ask him back. She smiled when she said, “And he gets really excited about it too.” From the size of the crowd and the length of the line at his book signing afterward, it was obvious that Collins has a following. One of the gardens’ ushers told me, “He is very popular.”
One reason for this is most probably because his poetry is accessible. It is human and identifiable to our experience, yet the poems reflect Collins’ own vision as he eloquently writes about things we know, offering his unique imprint. The lay person who dislikes poetry will find he or she will charmed and drawn in by his perspective. For the professional, Collins’ work will bring a nod of the head and smile at the clever turn of phrase, the symbol, the theme expressed with taut precision.
For those not sure what a US Poet Laureate is, suffice to say that the official designation and function of “the head poet” that is given by a governmental agency (Library of Congress as a consultant on American poetry), differs from country to country. Some nations expect their poets to write poetry for specific events and special occasions, as well as serve as a consultant when called upon. The US does not require that their Poet Laureate trot out poems for every occasion. However, Billy Collins, who was the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, gave interviews and did serve as a consultant to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Collins’ poems do that naturally. If T.S. Eliot was intentionally obscure, opaque, and dense, Collins is more like Walt Whitman in his celebration of human experience in his poems.
The Holiday Train Show at NYBG is a perfect meld with Collins’ work. The show runs until Sunday, January 19th.
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