For poetry lovers around the U.S., former Poet Laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003) needs no introduction. The New York State Poet for 2004 through 2006, he is a distinguished professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and the Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute in Florida. In 2015 he was appointed a teacher in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton. He continues to garner accolades as the country’s favorite “easy reading poet.”
Co-sponsored with the Poetry Society of America, the New York Botanical Garden for three years now has hosted a Billy Collins reading for the winter portion of its year-round celebration of “Poetry for Every Season.” Collins has specifically been invited as part of the winterscape exhibition accompanying the beloved Holiday Train Show.
For each seasonal exhibit, large poetry placards are spaced along garden walks with accompanying audio tours featuring the poets (for the Frida Kahlo exhibit, Octavio Paz; for the Train Show: Billy Collins) reading their works. It’s all part of the Poetry Society of America’s crusade to bring poetry into the lives of Americans at every opportunity. If you’ve been on a New York subway recently, you may have bumped up against a poet reciting his or her poetry or viewed a poem taking the place of an insurance ad. What better uplift do you need to extend your life and happiness than a poem that allows you to perceive images of the world beautifully expressed in a new way?
Last year when my cousin and I attended Billy Collins’s reading at the NYBG Holiday Train Show, she frankly admitted to Collins that she had always hated poetry because she never understood it. She told him that his poems were the first she enjoyed listening to and that he opened up a doorway for her into the world of poetry. As a former nerdy English teacher who taught literature and poetry, I have a sardonic and jaded attitude towards free verse poets, preferring the art of archaic sonnet writing or the rhymes of Frost, Dickinson, Milton, Yeats, Coleridge and the Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Keats, etc). But with Collins my nose is turned to the treasures of the earth, appreciating his word gems that shine unique images of everyday wisdom that move me along to a state of meditative repose. I really enjoy his turns of phrase, profound concepts expressed with spare, haunting phrasing, and stark metaphors.
And Collins is a funny guy. He has learned the fine art of droll, ironic entertainment and the spontaneity of quipping and commenting between understated readings of his free verse poems. If practice makes for perfection, Collins revealed he’s practiced plenty. His reading of poems on wintry subjects was measured perfection if not a completely ironic repast in this most warm of pre-seasonal winters leading up to December 21, the date the Winter Solstice occurs in New York City. Reading poems like “Snow Day,” “Shoveling Show With Buddha,” and “Winter,” Collins lightly referred to the unusual “appropriateness” of the poems given Saturday’s spring temperatures. However, the themes and images in those he read transcended the cold and wintry aspect and reached toward the irrevocable in each of our inner, whispered thoughts and feelings that Collins seems to so effortlessly express.
Collins gave a nod to Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and the Holiday Train Show and read two of the 19th-century poets’ train poems. I found myself drifting and only became relocated when Collins ventured back to his own crisp, dense phrases in wonderful poems like “Adage” and “Genius.” “Adage,” which deals with our use of clichés and commonplace maxims in a fitting exercise of defining what love (often reduced to cliché) is, begins:
When it’s late at night and branches
Are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter
of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else…
When the poet read the phrase “frying pan of yourself/into the fire…” a young child in the audience gave a magnificent whoop. It was the perfect sound effect to punctuate the hot metaphor. After a shocked one-second pause during which poet and audience registered the profound and humorous significance together, gales of laughter broke out. Relationships at their best or worst can be hot flames, but only a young, vibrant child born of such fiery love and thrilled with his gift of life could remind us of that with such unintentional and irrepressible enthusiasm.
The spirit certainly got ahold of that boy-child at an amazing moment and the joy we all felt at his perfectly timed exclamation point is the kind of stuff, I imagine, that follows Billy Collins around as what you might call random non-coincidences. Poetry that flows from the unexpected into the continually surprising is vintage Collins. His reading of select poetry on December 12 at the NYBG Train Show was emblematic of the wit and grace that have earned him the handle “the most popular poet in America.”