For twenty-five years the Poetry Society of America has been an active presence and voice in New York City. They have sponsored “Poetry in Motion” posting poems and having poets read their poems on NYC subways. They have also worked in concert with the New York Botanical Garden creating placards of beloved poems by noted poets to enhance and flavor the Garden’s various seasonal and special exhibits. For the Frida Kahlo exhibit, they featured poems by Octavio Paz along their Poetry Walk, Poetry for Every Season.
An ever-increasing Garden favorite is the 2016 Holiday Train Show. It is one of the most visited tourist attractions in New York City during the holiday season. As a part of the exhibit, the New York Botanical Garden features the poems of former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins along their Poetry Walk. The Garden in keeping with previous years always invites Billy Collins to add a flourish to the Train Show. He reads his singular and often witty, thoughtful poems about the winter season, snow, trains, and more in Ross Hall. Because Collins has become such a perennial favorite, this year Billy Collins was appointed as the official Poet Laureate of the New York Botanical Garden.
To celebrate this added honor, and just for the fun of it, long-time Collins’ friend Irish poet and former Vassar College Professor Eamon Grennan joined his colleague in Ross Hall. Both poets read related seasonal poems they had written. And they selected other favorite works by iconic American poets (Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandberg) and offered readings of those as well.
Eamon Grennan reading first with great good humor laughed about his friend Billy Collins’ dynamic delivery. He quipped that it was best to go first when Billy Collins was also on the program. He read “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens, an Irish snow poem which was untitled and other verse. Billy Collins read his standards “Snow Day,” “Shoveling Snow With Buddha,” Walt Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter,” and other poems.
After their presentations, both poets sat center stage with Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America and she hosted the discussion and led the Q and A which followed. The topics were familiar and unfamiliar to poets and poetry-lovers in the audience.
How does one write a poem? Where does one even begin? Alice Quinn questioned how both poets creatively conceptualized their first lines and continued their poems from there. How could one not help but site the comment made by the King in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. “Begin at the beginning and go on ’til you come to the end: then stop.” The quote lead both poets to a discussion about process, substance, theme, and concluding with a profound and philosophical thought. There was the notion that the first line “contains the DNA or the promise” of what is to follow and travels by digressions and degrees to a revelatory place.
Billy Collins commented that he often begins with an easy conversational tone and then ratchets up the stakes and prepares the reader for a profound, sometimes unexpected conclusion. And of course both poets agreed that the first line must intrigue, hook, focus, attract the reader/listener. If the reader loses interest and stops, then the poem either has gone off its track or has lost its powers of communication.
In the Q and A mention was made of current events and the political diatribes that flew back and forth between and among talking heads and explosive rants and tweets. Both Collins and Grennan were refreshing in their discussion of how the rhetoric of polemic and political cant are the basest form of language. And during this election season, perhaps we heard some of the most grotesque and gruesome (my notions), examples. Of course, print, visual media and discourse on Social Media was as base as language could get. Both poets countered that the beauty, metaphor and imagery found in poetry is always uplifting, clever and calming. Poetry provides the occasion for meditation and thoughtfulness; it takes one away from the cares of the world, which is perhaps the place to be at this point in time.
In answer to a question about the trend of rhyme and rhythm as both poets do not employ obvious end rhymes, Billy Collins commented that though rhyming is comforting as it provides a sense of what is to come,-is familiar, and predictive, there is no end of internal rhyme and rhythm in what appears to be free verse. Both poets are not “rappers” nor are their rhymes “hip hop,” but they use rhyming forms. Indeed, if one reads the works of both and goes back and rereads the poems, the rhymes become more apparent in how they resonate and display themes and patterns. As much as Grennan may think himself to be less philosophical than Collins, both use thoughtful images and employ the less obvious devices of rhyme, i.e. assonance and consonance, alliteration, etc. And these create a subtle overall impact, that might be less familiar and perhaps less reassuring to the reader, but is stalwart in its rhyming presence.
Billy Collins and Eamon Grennan’s poetry may be found online. If you discover you need to refresh yourself from the bustle and frenzy of the season, take a look see on Amazon. The Holiday Train Show runs until the sixteenth of January. During these next weeks, you still have the opportunity to head out to the New York Botanical Garden and remove yourself from yourself in the pleasure of its quiet loveliness while stopping along the poetry walk to read some Billy Collins’ poems about the season.
Featured programming during The Holiday Train Show may be found if you click HERE.