A Poet's Paper Trail
Billy Collins is one of a few American poets who can easily fill a few hundred seats for a reading of his work. He’ll do just that when he appears at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, fresh off the heels of this week's major announcement that the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center has acquired the popular poet’s archive.
The collection includes the former poet laureate's papers, journals, photos, and other materials spanning his personal and professional life from the Fifties to the present – taking his reputation for user-friendliness to a whole new level of accessibility for scholars and fans alike.
While the acquisition of Collins’ archive is an enormous achievement for the renowned humanities research center, Collins says he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Like anyone in the world of literature or American culture, I’ve known about the Ransom Center and [recently retired director] Tom Staley’s work for some time,” he says. “It’s not only just famous but it’s really the most prestigious place to have one’s papers land. You really want to place your papers not so much geographically – where you’re from or where you went to college – but you want to do it in such a way that your papers will be used and will be part of a well-known archive like the Ransom Center.”
Timing is also important to consider when sending, as Collins puts it, “the paper trail of one’s life to a repository. Of course, you don’t want to do it too young, when you’re in your 20s and you don’t have anything, and you want to do it before you die I just turned 70 a couple of years ago and I was consoled by a friend who told me to think of my 70s as the last decade of middle age,” he said, chuckling. “So I’m trying to take it that way.”
Collins, who served as American Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, will be joining a long list of celebrated poets at the Ransom Center, including E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, James Tate, Dylan Thomas, and too many others to name here.
“Some of them are writers who are my literary heroes. I learned a lot from many of these writers, and it’s really quite thrilling and flattering to think that my papers will be in some kind of intimate relationship with their papers,” he said by telephone last week.
There’s a reason that Collins, an English professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, holds such wide appeal: His poems read like short stories or vignettes with line breaks. He writes about everyday life, choosing simple words that he pieces together in a warm, unhurried rhythm, almost as if he’s welcoming the reader into his living room.
That’s precisely why Collins is often referred to as the people’s poet, a modern-day Robert Frost. He’s as much at home on the Colbert Report, where he appeared last fall with the release of his latest book, Aimless Love, as he is on PBS or NPR.
“I like poems that invite the reader in,” he says, noting he’s likely to stop reading if the first few lines are difficult and obstructive. “If the poem seems oblivious to my presence then I’m happy to feel oblivious to the poem.”
With his papers at the Ransom Center, Collins doesn't mind being an open book of sorts – not in a confessional, tell-all manner, but in a way that simply explains who he is, where he came from, how he did in school, and what process he uses to compose a poem. He hasn’t experienced the “postpartum misgivings” of other writers who have relinquished their archives. “Some people get very neurotic about this; I don’t. They feel that things are slipping out of their hands, or they’re being erased in some ways from the map. But I just think it’s all good.”
Perhaps most importantly for the Ransom Center, the collection includes the journals Collins has used over the years to form his many poems – enough to produce more than a dozen books far. “That might be of interest to anyone who may take a scholarly or even biographical interest in me,” he says. “You’ll see six or seven drafts of many, many poems as I worked them toward completion.”
Among those journal entries are drafts of "The Names," a tender, touching poem commissioned during his tenure as poet laureate to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11. As Collins tells it, just as he’s recounted many times before, he didn’t believe he was the right person to compose such a poem. “If you know my poems, they’re about eating a bowl of cereal or walking the dog – they’re real domestic things,” he said. “I really didn’t think I could rise to the national occasion.” In fact, Collins believed the occasion called for him reading someone else’s poem – one by Walt Whitman, say.
Eventually, though, inspiration shook him from his sleep early one morning, before dawn. “I think I heard the voice of my mother saying ‘Son, get out there and hit the ball, get off the bench.’” With that kick in the pants, he made two discoveries. “One is that I could write an elegy – I’ve been an English professor for over 30 years, so I know what an elegy is,” he explains. “So I could just write a poem for the dead and I wouldn’t have to grapple with the politics, the terrorism, and the safety of our country and all these big issues. And the second thing I could do was follow the alphabet.”
Given those two constraints, which proved liberating in the end, Collins was able to stay within the boundaries of both the elegy and the alphabet, jumping from name to name as he worked his way from A to, in the words of the poem, “the final jolt of Z.”
He drafted the poem in a matter of hours, he says, jotting down many of the names of victims and picking one name to represent a letter of the alphabet. “I wanted to make it ethnically diverse … and I wanted to, selfishly, for [the names] to sound good in the poem. I picked names who were representative of the diversity of people who died, and also names that would fit rhythmically into their sentences.”
Emotions were not part of the writing process – that would have been too disruptive, he says. “I was trying to figure the poem out, how to make it move through itself to an ending.”
Though it’s likely his most famous poem, Collins refuses to make a buck off of "The Names." It’s the one poem that has yet to be included in any of his books published since it was written in 2002.
Fortunately for us, there are many others that Collins has to offer.
Collins will read from his book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8pm.