“Looking out at this crowd of parents and students tonight, I’m not exactly sure who dragged whom…but I’m glad you’re all here.”
And with that, the ever humble and always forthright former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins began his Saturday evening talk in Mead Chapel.
Collins, who was Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, holds an inspiring list of awards and honors. He is well regarded for his innate ability to find pure poetry and tenderness in life’s most mundane moments. Some have called him the “everyman” poet, and those who have heard him read aloud often understand. To read his poems is one thing—they are unlike what many think of as poetry, with nary a rhyme or ponderous metaphor in sight. But to hear him read is something else altogether. He recites poem after poem as if he is simply chatting with you—telling you a simple fact, an underlying truth. It’s deceptively entrancing, and best of all, you “get it”! You understand exactly what he is saying, and it is SO TRUE.
That’s how it felt to be part of that audience that Saturday evening in Mead. The nearly packed building of listeners experienced the full spectrum of reactions—from raucous laughter to that collective exhalation, the ubiquitous “Awwwww,” that no poetry reading ever escapes entirely. True to his manner, though, Collins wryly followed that group show of sentimentality in response to “Dharma” with his decidedly unsentimental “Revenant,” in which the ghost of a former dog returns to tell his owner “I never liked you—not one bit.”
He read for just over an hour, yet hardly anyone budged from his or her seat. The selection ranged from old favorites to new poems from his latest book, Horoscopes for the Dead. Each poem merited some sort of preamble, through which he gave the audience a few potential views into his life—from growing up in New York City and college days with his hearty roommate from Vermont to a poignant and hysterically blunt portrayal of a 17-year-old girl, who seems incapable of picking up her room, compared to such child prodigies as Franz Schubert, Maria Callas, and Judy Garland.
In “Death of the Hat,” he combined humor, nostalgia, and an overwhelming sense of loss—not just for the classic fedora but for an entire era of values, style, and respect. And though the sadly funny “Forgetfulness” and “Hangover” probably seemed all too familiar to the elders in the crowd, the poems “What She Said” and “Oh, My God” no doubt struck a chord with younger listeners who so often fall prey to the marginalization of the English language. But the beauty of Collins is the way he makes so many of his poems accessible to everyone. Old or young, literary or not. His is a poetry that grasps our everyday. And while many in the audience seemed unfamiliar with his work when they arrived, they clearly left as fans.
Stay tuned to MiddMag for more Fall Family Weekend stories, including links to the President’s address to parents, panels and discussions, and other editorial coverage.