Billy Collins, the American poet who served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, spoke at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston on Tuesday evening. As expected, the reading was jam-packed for the popular and respected poet, but I was able to snag a seat in the front row so I could look at the stage and feel as if Billy was reading to me. Of course, I planned it like some people plan their arrival at the Apple store when there’s a new product.
The program began with a clip of President Kennedy speaking at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in October 1963, and Collins remembered that as a student at Holy Cross during Kennedy’s presidency, he met Frost at a luncheon in the poet’s honor. Collins also reminded the audience that Robert Frost was the first poet to read in a presidential inauguration.
Collins is well-known for writing poetry that doesn’t intimidate the reader, and he began by reading some of his wittier poems (Sandhill Cranes, Cheerios, Consolation, Aimless Love) before taking questions from Daniel Menaker, his long-time editor at The New Yorker. First, Menaker asked his friend to talk about his process. “I start with a little something,” Collins said. “I write a line or two – about something ordinary. And then I push it to be more interesting.” He went on to compare his poems to the old Eye Charts in the doctor’s office. “The Big E is at the top and there are more demands on the reader later than earlier.” “You start in Kansas and travel to Oz,” he said.
In response to a question about what Menaker called the “loneliness” of Collins’ poetry, the fact that there are very few “others” present in his poems, Collins said he prefers it that way. “The more people in your poem, the less alone you are with the reader.”
As a young boy, Collins said, his mother recited poetry to him and he recalled beginning to write as a teenager. Addressing the wide appeal of his poetry, he said that although his poems are often humorous, he is a “serious person.” I use humor, but I take life very seriously.”
Here’s one of my favorites:
Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside,
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.