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From College Professor to Poet

Alumnus Billy Collins Named U.S. Poet Laureate

by: Ricardo Duran   (September 2001)

Billy Collins, the new Poet Laureate of the United States and a 1971 recipient of a doctorate in Romantic Poetry from UCR, took up his new duties opening the Library of Congress' literary series recently.
The yearlong appointment, which pays $35,000, requires little more than giving a reading at the Library of Congress. The appointment allows the national bard time to pursue pet projects.

Collins ('71 Ph.D.) will push an initiative called "Poetry 180," the daily reading of verse at American high schools during the 180 days of instruction. Collins wants poems read as part of school announcements, not as part of any classes, to allow students to just listen and maybe enjoy as well.

"It's kind of like dropping poetry behind enemy lines," he said, stressing the need to divorce poetry from course work. "I think high school is where poetry goes to die."

Collins succeeds Stanley Kunitz and joins the ranks of eminent poets such as Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks, who also promoted the need to make verse a larger part of the national life. The position began in 1936, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress.

The popularity of Collins' "accessible" style has advanced such goals. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said of Collins' poetry, "He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist."

"He writes about small pleasures and quotidian details, in direct language and familiar images," wrote Amy Waldman of the New York Times.

"His writing leads you to a totally wild and unexpected place, and you don't mind the journey one bit," said Judy Kronenfeld, a UCR lecturer in creative writing who uses Collins' work in her courses.

In a poem called "Forgetfulness," Collins wrote:

"Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay."

The poem ends:

"No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart."

The media glare of Collins' appointment has shaken up the 60-year-old college professor's world. For most of the past 30 years, Collins considered himself a professor at the City University of New York's Lehman College campus who happened to write poetry on the side.

But the June announcement of his laureateship capped a swelling appreciation of his verse, which has transformed Collins' public image into that of poet who also happens to be a college professor. His once-quiet life has become a dizzying swirl of media interviews, television appearances and packed readings.

Collins signed a six-figure deal with Random House earlier this year for his next three books of poetry. "Sailing Alone Around the Room," a collection of new and older material, was published in September.

His appeal, fans, academics and literary types agree, is the "accessible" nature of his verse. Collins calls this combination of the lure of humor and the impact of ideas "seduction and ambush."

His honors include fellowships at the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has been awarded the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize, all awarded by Poetry Magazine.

Collins lives in an 1865 farmhouse in Somers, N.Y., with wife Diane (Olbright) Collins ('69), an architect and a native of Riverside.

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