Sunday, September 14, 2008


Billy Collins, in person or in poem, makes you feel welcome and comfortable.

His persona is amiable and easy going, with a quick smile and often a twinkle in his eye. You sense that soon you’ll be chuckling at something witty he’s said or made you say. His demeanor is unassuming, that of a regular fellow content to be quiet while others talk and he politely listens. His charisma is low voltage, but charisma nonetheless, not scintillating but charming.

If Billy Collins were a salesman, you’d buy, feeling that he’s simply helped you make the right choice and become a grateful customer.

In fact, he is a salesman, selling you on his poetry, and each poem is a clever bid for your attention first, and ultimately for your affection. You wonder just why you find his little poems so beguiling. What has he done, you wonder, that’s like the Whitman’s chocolate sampler which keeps you nibbling one and then another?

It was matters like this that Billy Collins chatted about on September 11th to a doting audience of 200 in Rollins’ Bush Auditorium.

The two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003), now an inaugural fellow in Rollins’ new Winter Park Institute, spoke about how a good poet aims to capture “the love of strangers,” how the poet’s well-crafted persona wins over readers, enticing them genially into the little room of each poem.

Good poets are not self-absorbed. They court our caring.

Collins likens his poems to the optometrist’s eye chart, with the big E at the top that most everyone can read. By the end of the poem, though, he hopes to have made us squint, by subtly leading us to sharpen our attention and see something more challenging or see from a different perspective.

First he wins you, then he spins you to a place where “language is better than reality.”

* * *


Tonight, we are about to hear a talk by the immensely popular poet, Billy Collins, in which he’ll address the topic of

“The Love of Strangers and the Other Aims of Poetry.”

Most living poets aren’t “popular,” and many would disdain the thought of being popular—much less of aspiring to be so.

Probably the last American poet who could claim wide popularity—and who unabashedly sought it—was New England’s Robert Frost (with Chicago’s Carl Sandburg right behind him).

Beat Poets of the ’50’s and ’60’s, like Allan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (both of whom have read at Rollins) enjoyed their ardent, though sub-culturally confined groupies.

But not until Billy Collins rose to become the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001, and was then offered a second term the following year, has there been an American poet so much loved by both the Poetry Establishment and by the general populace.

One testament to that ardor is Billy Collins’ entertaining visits to the populist precincts of Garrison Keillor’s weekly NPR variety show, The Prairie Home Companion.

Another is that Collins has subsequently risen to the position of the Poet Laureate of New York State, with the high hopes, I’ve heard him say, of becoming, in the fullness of time, the Poet Laureate of his ZIP code.

How grounded can you get?

Just how does a poet grow so popular and become so beloved of readers and auditors?

And is the love of strangers something of what he’s aiming at when he makes his poems?

That, I believe, is only some of what we’ll find out tonight.

So, too that end, I am delighted , on behalf of Rollins College and of our new Winter Park Institute, to give you—Billy Collins.



What is peace? “The opposite of war,” I think reflexively, recalling Tolstoy’s title.

While sitting here to muse upon this suggested topic, I occupy myself with exterminating squadron after squadron of tiny black gnats who’ve been drawn to the 25-watt bulb over my lap pad. (I write in the wee hours.)

In ten minutes I’ve smooshed scores of them as they’ve landed to scurry around on my pad, my arm and the chair arm beside me. I seem to have repelled the main invasion, though stragglers still descend as I write, only to be rubbed out and brushed away. At last (my private holocaust concluded) peace returns, and I can continue thinking. Where was I?

Oh, yes—oh, wait—there’s another bugger to squash. OK, done. Now about peace. First of all, I think of myself as a naturally pacific fellow, not prone to take offense, mild mannered and cheerful, open to all sorts of people, accepting, trusting, and amiable.

I think of Gandhi’s much-quoted admonition: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way,” which I take to mean that peacefulness, a peaceable heart and unperturbed temperament within each of us is the prerequisite for our living in a peaceable society, a peaceable world.

What, then, is that inner peace Gandhi advocates? How do we achieve it and sustain it? And what challenges such calmness, serenity and tranquility?

What doesn’t? Gnats, for instance, or anything else annoying, distressing, irritating, antagonizing, or simply disturbing to our peace. Irritants are everywhere, and they urge us to react to rid them from our consciousness.

What is peace? Something rare. Something fragile. Something tenuous and easily extinguished, like the life of a bug.

How then (if it ever is possible) can I or anyone attain and sustain peace by becoming impervious to irritation and to defensive reactivity? How can one become like the yogi who lies on a bed of nails or walks across glowing coals—intrepid and tranquil? How do we absorb “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (in Hamlet’s lofty phrase) without irritation and retaliation?

I doubt we can. Jesus and Gandhi, maybe, but not me and probably not you. Though you may prove me wrong. Then I’ll be eager to learn how you’ve gained the temperance to respond to potential stressors with only loving patience and kindly wisdom that means harm to none and finds ways to resolve all conflicts and antagonisms innocently.

Only then might we experience what amounts to the Miracle of Peace.

* * *


“There is no way to peace; peace is the way,”
Wise Gandhi said, by which I think he meant
We have to be that which we seek, and play
The role we would become with clear intent.

For as I think and act so shall I be,
And so the world around me shall become:
If violently, then war shall vanquish me;
If lovingly, then peace shall still the drum.

It’s in our hands and hearts and minds to choose
The manner we live by, day after day:
Shall it be marching boots or dancing shoes,
Aggression or compassion? Pick the way,

Not where to go, but who and how to be:
To live in anger—or serenity.



Humanity’s resort to violence
To settle ego’s conflicts makes no sense,
For everything we claim to be humane
Bids us to be compassionate and sane:

To love our neighbors as we love ourselves
And stash our grievances on basement shelves
Once we’ve resolved our conflicts peacefully
With justice, honor, truth and equity.

That’s our ideal, proclaimed by saints and sages
In wisdom texts and scriptures through the ages,
And yet in all this time we’ve still not learned
The arts of peace for which we’ve deeply yearned.

Only a peaceful Spirit saves the day:
“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”


Sunday, September 7, 2008


I, too, am one acquainted with the night,
For now it is, in peace, I rise to write.
My body’s calm and rested from its sleep,
My mind is capable of diving deep
Near where it was submerged in downy dreams,
And in this circumstance my Genius gleams:
This Daimon that is Me essentially
Now shows itself in its reality.

Cloaked over during day by characters
I play, with whom society concurs,
This real Me emerges on the page
Released at last from my diurnal cage
And leaves this record of my presence here
Where by night’s magic I may now appear.


Monday, September 1, 2008


Discursive verses were his stock in trade
Where his poetic talents were displayed,
Such as they were. He put them on parade
In ranks of five iambics neatly laid,
Sometimes in couplets, like a colonnade,
Sometimes in alternating rhymes, a braid
Of twining verses pleasantly arrayed
Into the sonnet’s form, as deftly made
As he could do without a Muse’s aid.
Sometimes, as here, he loosed a fusillade
Of single rhymes, a columnar cascade
Designed to leave his readers’ eardrums flayed
It seemed, instead of working to persuade
Them to remember his departed shade.