Billy Collins: Poet in Residence
Whether he's writing about mice or memory, his humor and heart shine through. Billy Collins is perhaps the most popular poet in the country, living quietly among us.
I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice
might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.
Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe
behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,
the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time—
now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,
lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?
Collins with Paul McCartney and writer George Plimpton at a book party in New York City. It happened to be the night before the 9/11 attack. (COURTESY OF BILLY COLLINS)
“The Country,’’ a poem based on a sleep-deprived visit to a friend’s Vermont farmhouse, is fairly representative of the kind of things that are scurrying around in Billy Collins’ mind at any given moment.
Some days it’s a mouse with a match between its teeth. Other days it might be, say, a theory about where memories go when they drift just out of our reach. From a poem called “Forgetfulness”:
It’s as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
When Collins is out walking the dog, chances are he’s not just out walking the dog. He’s wondering what the spirit of a disgruntled pet might say if it could return just long enough to tell off its former master. “I never liked you” might make a good start.
At least that’s how a canine’s kiss-off in a poem called
“The Revenant” begins before concluding:
You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place….
Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner—
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.
Collins reading at the White House for Michelle Obama and others in 2015 (COURTESY OF BILLY COLLINS)
Collins, a world traveler and longtime New Yorker who’s been called the most popular poet in the country, has been walking that active imagination of his around Central Florida for the past few years, having settled down here because of a somewhat more traditional source of poetic inspiration: He fell in love.
He was doing a reading at Valencia Community College in 2002 when he met his current fiancée, Orlando attorney-turned-writer Suzannah Gilman, at a time when both were at the frayed ends of flagging first marriages. They maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years before she convinced him, on a stroll down Park Avenue, to move from his mid-19th century Westchester County farmhouse to Winter Park, where they now live together in a shady, brick-paved neighborhood near Rollins College.
Collins wound up accepting an offer from Rollins to become senior fellow at its Winter Park Institute, which brings speakers to campus for public appearances. He was a natural fit, thanks in part to the friendships he’d forged with high-end creatives, particularly during his 2001-2003 stint as the country’s poet laureate. Those contacts helped him bring a distinguished lineup of speakers to Rollins, including cartoonist Jules Feiffer; playwright Marsha Norman; radio raconteur Garrison Keillor; singer/composer Paul Simon, whom he bumped into on an awards-banquet dance floor; and Sir Paul McCartney, whom he met at a book party at the New York apartment of the late literary luminary George Plimpton.
“Celebrity poet” may sound like an oxymoron, but Collins is the closest thing to it since Robert Frost. He’s all over YouTube, where you’ll find two TED talks, numerous lectures and seminars about poetry, and many of his own poems, most often being recited by him, but in one case by a 3-year-old whose inflection is impeccable.
Some of the poems, including the one that stars a flame-throwing rodent, are accompanied by animations, which pleases Collins, an ardent fan of vintage Warner Bros. cartoons and surely the first poet in history to count both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Bugs Bunny as creative influences. He even wrote a dead-serious essay, in The Wall Street Journal, of all places, about the formative role Looney Tunes played in his early creative development, stretching his sense of imaginative possibilities as a child.
Frost was sentimental about the countryside. Collins has a bit of that in him, too, plus a dry, off-kilter sense of humor that lends the zip of standup comedy to his poetry readings and lectures. He has a deadpan, rumpled-scholar, perfect-pitch delivery that brings out both the tartness of the humor and the lilt of nostalgia in his poems. He’s written 13 volumes of them over the past 29 years, his last two, Aimless Love and
The Rain in Portugal, having made The New York Times’ hard-cover fiction best-seller list, a rare distinction for a book of poems.
Collins travels to dozens of venues every year to give poetry readings and lectures, both on behalf of his own poetry and as a user-friendly ambassador of a genre that can surely use the boost. He is popular not just in the United States but also abroad, where his poems have been translated into a dozen languages, from Italian to Mongolian.
“Billy is the poet of our time,” says Gail Sinclair, an American literature professor who directs the Winter Park Institute. “He’s the perfect storm. He brings intellectual clout to Rollins. And when I look out at the audience during one of his readings, I see people from all walks of life laughing and wiping away tears.”
“Billy touches a universal chord,” says Gilman. “He charms people.” Sometimes a bit more than she’d like: She’s simmered from the sidelines more than once as women on the book-signing line flirt with her intended to varying degrees of flagrancy. But then, she has also seen husbands and boyfriends, clearly dragged along to poetry readings against their better judgment, fall under his spell. She’s heard people come up to him to talk about attending funerals where someone’s favorite Billy Collins poem was incorporated into the ceremony. She’s heard others say the same of weddings.
Collins once discovered that his poems were being read, at mealtimes, to the Roman Catholic monks at New Camaldoli Hermitage, a religious retreat on the mountainous Northern California Big Sur coastline whose residents observe a strict vow of silence. A few have not uttered so much as a single “hi there” in decades.
“The friend who told me about it said these monks make the regular Benedictines look like Hells Angels,” says Collins.
Intrigued, he arranged to spend time as a guest at the monastery. He had a sense of being enveloped in a timeless expanse of communal wordlessness, feeling like his own mute contribution to the silent realm “was like the contents of an eyedropper” by comparison.
If the monks of New Camaldoli sensed in him a kindred soul—he was, after all, raised Irish Catholic, and by Jesuits, no less—they weren’t alone. He’s been interviewed about the spirituality some see in his poems, and was asked to write the preface to The Best Spiritual Writing of 2011.
It was quite the metaphysical upgrade for a Daffy Duck fan whose first few poems were published in Rolling Stone. “That was a good gig,” he says of his time writing some of the hip, telegraphic poems the magazine used as back-page fillers. “They paid me 35 bucks apiece for them.”
This was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Collins had been nursing a stubborn perception of himself as a poet since high school, though to all outward appearances he was just another obscure academic, laboring away in the grammar-police trenches as an English professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, a liberal arts institution in the City University of New York system. He especially enjoyed the adult evening classes in literature and composition he sometimes taught to a shifting tide of fresh immigrants and working-class students, when he would stay in the city after class to linger at his favorite Irish bar for poetry readings.
Collins is passionate about the place of poetry in a culture, whether you’re sitting in a classroom or perched on a barstool. “If you read poetry, you don’t have to go through a windshield to know how precious life is,” he once said, in an interview with The Washington Post. One of the standard assignments he gave students in his lit classes during the more than three decades he taught at Lehman was to have them memorize a favorite poem, hoping it would stay with them for life.
Once, on a lower-Manhattan subway car, he noticed a fellow commuter studying him, then approaching. It was a former student. He had gone on to become a doctor; an oncologist.
“He said, ‘I was in your class. You made us memorize a poem. I can still remember it. Can I recite it for you now?’ And he did, there in that subway car, shouting an Emily Dickinson poem in my ear over the rumble of the train. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life as a teacher.”
As for his life as a poet, that would take decades to develop. He graduated from his Rolling Stone years to submitting his work to the far more demanding literary journals of colleges and universities. From there he moved on to The Paris Review, Poetry Magazine and The New Yorker. His breakthrough along the way was his discovery of a poetic voice, a persona that suited him.
“He’s a refinement of who I am, something like a Photoshopped version of myself,” he explained during one of a series of interviews for this story that were conducted back and forth between two Winter Park institutions: Briarpatch Restaurant on Park Avenue for breakfast (soft-scrambled eggs), and The Alfond Inn for evening drinks (Jameson Irish Whiskey, for starters).
Of himself and his alter ego on the printed page, Collins says: “We’re quite different, actually. I like the city. He’s never been to the Bronx. I drink coffee. He drinks tea. He’s a countryside wanderer. He doesn’t seem to have a job, or any social obligations. Something about that seems to appeal to readers.”
They like it enough to tag along on a four- or five-stanza journey that tends to start out with an ordinary setting or everyday experience and work its way around to what is often a bittersweet and vaguely disarming revelation.
“I like to think of my poems being a bit like picking someone up, taking them for a drive, and then dropping them off in a cornfield somewhere,” says Collins.
The poem about forgetting, for example, ends like this:
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
It can leave you with a catch in your throat, that moonlit last line, especially if you have heard it communally, shoulder-to-shoulder in a darkened auditorium, as a fuzzy-haired figure in reading glasses, poised behind a shifting mound of loose pages and bookmarked volumes, reads it in a soft voice, pausing between “poem” and “know” just long enough to slip a frisson of bittersweet melancholia into place.
Collins’ emergence may have looked like sudden success. Those who had followed his steadfast development knew better.
“By the time Billy took the stage, he was already fully formed,” says one of his Random House editors, novelist David Ebershoff, author of the best-selling The Danish Girl.
Collins had just turned 60 in 2001 when he attracted the attention of Random House, landing a three-book deal and a six-figure advance, a heretofore unheard-of sum for a poet. His aura as an instant phenom was enhanced by appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, the NPR talk show Fresh Air, and the poet laureate appointment.
As part of his duties in that largely honorary post, he was asked to write a poem commemorating the victims of 9/11. He blended a procession of somber images with an alphabetical litany, each one a victim’s surname, titled it “The Names,” and read it, as requested, at a special joint session of Congress held in New York City on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack.
If you look at the video now, he doesn’t appear to be nervous. In truth, he was petrified. He could sense the legislators shifting uneasily in their seats as he began to recite the poem.
“This was not the sort of language they were accustomed to,” he says. “This wasn’t a speech. This wasn’t political rhetoric. I was up there talking about rain beating against a windowpane. I could see some of them just tune it out. But there were others. They would cock their heads, lean forward. I could see Patrick Moynihan’s eyes start to water. I thought I was losing it, but seeing him like that, somehow it pulled me through.”
Collins is a long way now from those days and the shift that he made then, as a colleague once put it, from “being a teacher who happened to be a poet to a poet who happened to be a teacher.” But even at 76, the rhythm of his life hasn’t substantially changed.
He’s still on a college campus. He’s still being honored for his work: last year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor society of 250 architects, composers, artists and writers. Other writers inducted into the academy include Joan Didion, John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Annie Dillard, Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike.
He’s still writing poetry. He wrote about the Pulse attack, or tried to, deciding, in the end, to discard the poem. It was, he thinks, too soon, too close, a tragedy so immense that the poem crumpled under its weight.
A poem, he says, is smarter than the poet. It knows whether or not it wants to be told. He’s grateful, more and more, for those that cooperate and emerge from his labors.
“There’s a limit, you know,” he says. “That well of inspiration—it has a bottom. So every good poem I produce these days is an affirmation, a reassurance.”
He still does a great deal of traveling, promoting his own poetry and representing the genre.
“What people don’t realize about Billy is how hard he works,” says his New York literary agent, Chris Calhoun, who met Collins at a poker game in the early 1980s and has considered him a best friend ever since. “All those books he sells—those aren’t sold on Amazon. They’re sold one by one. They’re sold by hand: He’s out there on the road with them at book signings. Billy, I bet you, has met more of his readers in person than any other author in the country.”
Collins, in fact, is more blue-collar than ivory tower, more door-to-door than artist-in-the-garret, with a background that informs both his work ethic and that engaging persona he created.
He was an only child. He jokes that in a game, it was always his turn; on a road trip, there was no bickering about who sat where in the car. “It was just me and my parents. I was like the baby Jesus.”
His mother, Katherine, was a Canadian nurse who had him late in life and quit working to raise him. His father, William, was raised in a family of Irish immigrants in Lowell, Massachusetts. When William’s own father died when he was young, his mother encouraged him to take a trade. He became an electrician, then managed by dint of persistence and nerve to change careers, eventually working in a British-owned Manhattan brokerage company that placed business with Lloyd’s of London. He became so successful that he was picked up every day by a driver who ferried him and his chairman to work in a Rolls-Royce. It delighted him, says Billy, but he never forgot his own blue-collar roots. One day, when he was in his 90s, a certificate came in the mail recognizing him for 75 years of union membership: He’d been loyally paying his dues to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers all those years.
Collins, who says his father was a wisecracker and a practical joker all his life, tells this story about him:
In an era when all men wore hats, he once took a dislike to a man in his office who came in one day showing off a stylish fedora. Checking the label of his victim’s new purchase, he slipped out to a haberdashery to have two duplicates made—one just a shade too small, the other just a shade too large—and then took turns, from one day to the next, switching them out for the original, relishing his office mate’s puzzlement.
From his father, Collins says, he thinks he inherited both a work ethic and a sense of humor. He gives his mother, who memorized verses and recited them frequently, credit for inspiring a sense of lyricism in him for both the written and spoken word.
Nor was that her only gift. Some sons send their mothers flowers or candy or greeting cards to express their affection and their gratitude.
It should come as no surprise that Billy Collins found another way.
It’s a poem called “The Lanyard,’’ often cited as his most beloved work.
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.