Billy Collins

Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. Dubbed by The New York Times “the most popular poet in America,” he is also the most visible, having just assumed the post of Poet Laureate of the United States. Collins has built a rare bridge of admiration for his work between serious literary folk and poetry novitiates.

No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. Collins’ last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry, even sparking a remarkable battle between publishers. His readings are usually SRO, and his audience – enlarged tremendously by his appearances on National Public Radio – includes people of all backgrounds and age groups.

Collins has published seven books of poetry, including Questions about Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. As reflected in the title of his latest collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, he sees his poetry as “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door to the serious.” It is a door that many thousands of readers have opened with amazement and delight. In the words of poet Ed Hirsch, Collins is “an American original – a metaphysical poet with a funny bone.”

Collins’ many honors include NEA and Guggenheim fellowships and the title of “Literary Lion” from the New York Public Library. Born in New York City, he attended the College of the Holy Cross and received his Ph.D. in Romantic Poetry from the University of California at Riverside. He is currently professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2002

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that it is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk thought the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

From THE ART OF DROWNING (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)

Sonnet

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

From SAILING ALONE AROUND THE ROOM (Random House, 2001)

The Iron Bridge

I am standing on a disused iron bridge
that was erected in 1902
according to the iron plaque bolted into a beam,
the year my mother turned one.
Imagine-a mother in her infancy,
and she was a Canadian infant at that,
one of the great infants of the province of Ontario.

But here I am leaning on the rusted railing
looking at the water below,
which is flat and reflective this morning,
sky-blue and streaked with high clouds,
and the more I look at that water,
which is like a talking picture,
the more I think of 1902
when workmen in shirts and caps
riveted this iron bridge together
across a thin channel joining two lakes
where wildflowers now blow along the shore
and pairs of swans float in the leafy coves.

1902-my mother was so tiny
she could have fit into one of those oval
baskets for holding apples,
which her mother could have lined with a soft cloth
and placed on the kitchen table
so she could keep an eye on infant Katherine
while she scrubbed potatoes or shelled a bag of peas,

the way I am keeping an eye on that cormorant
who just broke the glassy surface
and is moving away from me and the bridge,
swiveling his curious head,
slipping out to where the sun rakes the water
and filters through the trees that crowd the shore.

And now he dives,
disappears below the surface,
and while I wait for him to pop up,
I picture him flying underwater with his strange wings,

as I picture you, my tiny mother,
who disappeared last year,
flying somewhere with you strange wings,
your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress,
kicking deeper down into a lake
with no end or name, some boundless province of water.

From SAILING ALONE AROUND THE ROOM (Random House, 2001)