Billy Collins

Billy Collins
U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003)
Dept. of English, Lehman College, CUNY

A Poetry Reading
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series
Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford University
Monday, November 10, 2003, 8 pm-9:15 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: The first five rows were already filled when I arrived at Cubberley Auditorium at 7:20 pm. I found an aisle seat in the tenth row and began reading Collins' Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems which he selected. This was the only Collins' book left at the Stanford Library. All his other eight poetry books were checked out. As the U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins initiated a poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress. Poetry 180 with its website is designed for high school students to read a poem each day of the 180 days of the school year. The first poem in this anthology is Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry"— a wonderful way to get kids to appreciate poetry for its freshness instead of inducing fear in getting its meaning. In this respect, Collins has selected poems that are accessible at first glance so students will love reading them. It's 8 pm and the auditorium is packed to capacity with students sitting on the floor in the aisles. Prof. Eavan Boland, Director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program introduced Prof. Ken Fields, who introduced Billy Collins. Fields said that Collins' poetry books outsold many fiction writers— "Billy Collins quotes like a musician, conveys the zest of experience." Collins thanked Fields, saying "your introduction could be broken up into poetry." Collins then read 22 poems with much humor, drawing continuous laughter from the crowd. The audience applauded after each poem and gave Collins a rousing standing ovation at the end. A short Q&A session followed, then several students went up front to have their Collins's books autographed. Collins autographed the ad with his photo in my copy of the Stanford Daily as well as the Poetry 180 which I checked out of the Stanford Library yesterday. Here is an article about Billy Collins' Reading from the Tuesday Nov. 11th issue of the Stanford Daily. My notes are below. Collins' reading inspired the following poem "Pondering About Poetry After a Billy Collins Reading at Stanford".

     I wonder how you're going to feel.
     the stone caught in the heart of her poet lover.

     The birds are in their trees

(3) I was not afraid of coyotes or bears when I was a child.
     I was afraid of furnitures, those knotted faces in pine and oak.

CREATURES (Gettysburg Review, Winter 2001)

Over the sparkle of blue waves
so it could live out its freakish existence
on the dark bottom of the sea
and stop bothering innocent beachgoers like us,
stop ruining everyone's summer.

(4) It's been said that 300 sheep were used for Gutenberg Bible book covers.
     I could see them where the printing press was housed
     that the Lord is a shepherd, one of the few things
     they already knew.

     I want to carry you and you to carry me

     the heads of roses began to drrop


(8) Yeats wrote "The Wild Swans of Coole" [1919]. He counted 59 swans and they took off.
     Swans are relatively monogamous. So if I counted an even number,
     all is well. But if it's an odd number, then I wonder whether
     there's a bachelor in the group, or a widow, or widower.


     I don't think this poem needs an introduction
     Whenever I mention the word five
     It's about wild strawberries
     when I went picking wild strawberries.

(10) I was visiting a friend living in Vermont.

(11) I took two lines from a Belgian poet and rewrote the poem:

LITANY (Poetry February 2002)

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
- Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.


This is the voice on the radio
This is the birthday of Vivaldi
325 years old today

(13) NO TIME (Poetry December 2001)

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

(14) DHARMA (spiritual destiny or nature)

The way the dog trots out of the door
without any hat or money
off she goes out to the world
if she were not so
if only I were not her God




(18) JAPAN


(20) This is a spoof poem on our obsessions to decades.
       It's a 70's thing or a 50's thing— twinge of nostalgia.

Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called "Find the Cow."
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.
The 1790's will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.





Q: How do you pick a synonym if you need an 11-syllable word?
A: Flammable and inflammable. Use a thesaurus.

Q: Has anyone considered you a clown?
A: Should I take this as an insult? Many are shocked to think of poetry as humor.
     I do more humorous poems in public. It's a way of saying
     I'm not taking it too seriously. Before the Romantic period,
     there were lots of humor. Then the Romantic poets got rid of
     sex and humor, and substituted landscape. I considered it a bad
     deal. Humor became marginalize as light verse. Philip Larkin
     brought it back. I don't think of myself as a Bozo.

Q: What can you say about poetry in education?
A: I put out Poetry 180 to bring poetry into high school. I've judged poetry
     contests. Children 8-9 years old are uninhibited in their writing.
     There is always something fresh in what they say. When they get to
     12-13, they go underground through a tunnel of hormonal change.
     They lock themselves up in their room, put headphones on, become
     gloomy, and their poems become clichéd. Try to make poetry out
     of everyday life. They ruin poetry in schools by putting students
     in a spot— what's the theme? what's the meaning of this poem?
     In high school, I didn't even know the meaning of "theme". When the
     teacher explained it— I would raise my hand "It's the quest"
     When the teacher said no, I came up with "The search for the lost father"
     and so on. Just guessing and not having a clue whatsoever.

Q: Do you have any favorites of your own work?
A: Once they're written, they're done. The interest is always what
     you're doing at the present. If you see me read my own poetry
     at home, hit me over the head!

Q: Why do we have to pay a Poet Laureate?
A: You don't. The U.S. Poet Laureate is privately funded. None of your tax dollars
     is going to waste. The Huntington family funds it— a pittance.
     The negative part is that poets need an office. The positive part
     is to acknowledge the culture of poetry. Only poetry has this title.
     It's Anglophilia and has a nice ring to it.


Poetry Books by Billy Collins: (at

Poetry 180: a turning back to poetry
Random House, New York (2003)
Nine Horses
Random House, New York (2002)
Sailing Alone Around the Room:
New and Selected Poems

Random House, New York (2001)
Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
Picador, London (2000)
Picnic, Lightning
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh (1998)
The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh (1995)
The Apple That Astonished Paris
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville (1988)
Questions About Angels: Poems
Quill/William Morrow, New York (1991)
The Best Cigarette (Audio CD)
Cielo Publishing (1997)

Web Links to Billy Collins
Billy Collins: The Academy of American Poets
  (Short Bio & Web Links to Collins' poetry)
Billy Collins: The English Department Faculty
  (Faculty Page at Lehman College, CUNY)
Poet Laureate Billy Collins: Lehman College
  (By Ari McKenna, Education Update Online, Jan. 2002)
Billy Collins Opens "The Poets of CUNY" At Metropolitan Museum
  (Oct. 15, 2002; Collins Poem: "The Names")
Contemporary Poetry: Billy Collins
  (Seven Collins poems)
The Cortland Review: Billy Collins
  (The Poet and The Poem with Grace Cavalieri)
Big Snap: Billy Collins
  (Poet, Poems, Gossip, Books
Big Snap: Billy Collins
  (Links to articles & interviews with Billy Collins)
Billy Collins: The Steven Barclay Agency
  (Lectures, Readings, Bookings)
You Are Not the Pine-Scented Air, O.K.?
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Nine Horses]
  (By Mary Jo Salter, NY Times, Oct. 20, 2002)
BOOKS: A Poet's Life, Revealed in the Details
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room]
  (By RICHARD EDER, NY Times, Oct. 8, 2001)
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room]
  (By Dwight Garner NY Times, Sept. 23, 2001)
On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock
  (By BRUCE WEBER, NY Times, Dec. 19, 1999)
With Humor, Poet Lures Fans to the Serious
  (By Cynthia Magriel Wetzler, NY Times, Nov. 30, 1997)
Billy Collins: Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
  (By Robert Darling, Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Nov. 2001)
Capacity crowd witnesses Poet Laureate
  (By Chris Chesser, Grand Valley Lanthorn, 10-18-2002)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (11-10-2003)