As part of the Lowell Humanities Series, Billy Collins spoke to a packed Gasson Hall on Wednesday evening. Many were standing in the overcrowded room, waiting for the distinguished poet to share some of his acclaimed work with the audience.
Using his wit, humor, and monotone voice, Collins touched upon some of the topics for his poems: anything from Tennessee fainting goats to Cheerios.
Collins was introduced by Suzanne Matson, a professor in the English department at Boston College and a well known writer herself. She noted that Collins has been cited by the New York Times as “America’s most popular poet”, and that he was also appointed United States Poet Laureate for 2001-03.
Additionally, Collins is currently a Guggenheim Fellow and was recognized as a “Literary Lion” of the New York Public Library. He is also a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and in 2016 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
Collins has published multiple collections of poetry, the most recent one being The Rain in Portugal, which was published by Random House in 2016.
In an interview in 2013, Collins had said he writes “because it’s a habitual pleasure” and that “it’s deeply satisfying to move into a kind of focused state, into a verbal zone.” As for another pleasure, he remarked that he never knows exactly where the poem is going, and “so it’s the pleasure of discovery.”
Following the introduction, Collins began the readings with “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.” The poem was rather lighthearted, witty, and descriptive, and helped set the tone for the entire event.
As Collins has said in previous interviews, his poems begin as a “social engagement.” His primary intention is to “establish a sociability or hospitality in the beginning of the poem.”
Collins then proceeded to talk about the phenomenon of the tennessee fainting goats and read “Down on the Farm.” He then read “Irish Spider,” a small poem about observation, absurdity, and contemplation.
Collins entertained the audience with a variety of other works, including the jazz-inspired “1960,” the imaginary sibling story in “Only Child,” and the poet’s proclivity to have credulous beliefs in “Superstition.”
In “Cheerios,” Collins excelled at his ability to unite self-deprecation, absurdity, and skillful poetry. Once again utilizing humor and a talented delivery of the poem, Collins amused the crowd with this particular work.
“Already I could hear them whispering behind my stooped and threadbare back, ‘Why, that dude’s older than Cheerios,’” Collins recited, to scattered laughter of the listeners.
Collins continued with “The Revenant,” which he jokingly described as “retroactive plagiarism/” Soon followed “Hippos on Holiday.” “Oh My God!”, “The Country,” “The Trouble With Poetry.” and “No Time.”
As “Divorce” and “Genesis” served as companion poems about separation and love, “Forgetfulness” and “Nostalgia” complemented each other in striking a more serious and thoughtful tone towards the end of the event.
Collins’s reading totalled almost 30 poems, and his impressive delivery of the material left the audience impressed by the distinguished poet.
In the Q&A session of the event, Collins first discussed the importance of meaningful influences of some poets. He also believes there should be more recognition for poets on a state and federal level.
“You know, they have a National Poetry Month,” Collins said. “If you have a national month, or week, or day or something, it’s always a sign it’s neglect. … You’ll never see a ‘National Television Month’ or a ‘Facebook Day’, right?”
When asked whether he struggled with self-doubt during his career, Collins humorously reiterated that he was an only child—he could not compare himself to any other siblings.
“But I was rejected left and right, and I think I was slightly discouraged here and there,” he acknowledged. “I was energized by rejection,” Collins said, “I don’t have a need for approval so much, as the taste for revenge.”
Featured Image by Jacob Catania / Heights Staff