In a matter of months poet Billy Collins has gained a reputation as a literary equivalent to George Foreman and left the lightweight ring forever.
Selected last fall to replace Stanley Kunitz as U.S. Poet Laureate, Collins said his prestigious appointment has removed all doubt about his qualifications as a poet. He said he has been criticized as being little more than an “entertainer” because of the humor and clarity with which he approaches his work.
To the overflowing crowd of over 100 students and faculty who attended his Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon, Collins’ self-deprecating wit regarding himself, his poetry, and his position as laureate was worth the packed crowd.
“He was the most fabulous relaxed person I’ve ever seen at one of these talks,” Kathryn Franklin ’05 said. “He has this cynical, ironic sense of humor. He made me want to just instantly buy his book.”
Collins read several of his poems to the crowd, including pieces with titles like “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” and “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice.'” After reading the latter, Collins said he had discovered an unintentional trend in his poems.
“I have two themes,” he said. “One is death. The other is mice.”
Collins said he started out by mimicking other poets until he found his own voice, just as all poets do.
“Poets are kind of Dr. Frankensteins,” he said. “stealing from different poets, nailing it together and hoping it sits up.”
He said he came to realize that poetry does not have to be serious and “depressing.”
“If Thom Gunn could write about Elvis Presley, I could write a poem about Little Richard, and when you can do that, all things are possible,” Collins said.
Collins, who quoted multiple poets throughout the Tea, justified what he called his lack of work ethic with a Robert Frost saying.
“You can’t fret a poem into being,” Collins said.
Collins explained how choosing the Poet Laureate is the sole responsibility of the Librarian of Congress, which appoints a laureate every October.
“You become Poet Laureate out of an act of Congress — and God,” he said. “God appears in the form of the Librarian of Congress.”
Collins joked that he is lobbying to make his post a lifetime appointment. He called the short-term tenure of American laureates the “hot-rod version” of the British position, which until recently was a lifetime position. Since the term length of the British Poet Laureateship has decreased to 10 years, Collins said he had a unique opportunity to try to catch up.
“The British would be very embarrassed — and that would be good,” he said.
Kathleen McKeegan ’05 said she loved Collins’ deadpan readings.
“I liked the fact that his work was very clear, accessible and funny,” McKeegan said. “I wished he had read some more [of his poems].”
Collins insisted that though he has very few duties and does not care about poetry’s small audience, poetry must be important.
“We don’t have a short story laureate,” he reasoned. “We don’t have a piccolo-playing laureate.”
Collins is currently working on a project called Poetry180, a Web site for high schools that offers a poem-a-day to be read during public announcement addresses.