Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate, writes poems about dogs, drowning, and lanyards. This past Wednesday, Collins, sponsored by a grant from the Patrick Hayes Endowment, visited the College. Collins led an hour-long poetry workshop at 3pm in Tucker Hall, and at 8pm he gave a well-attended and equally well-received poetry reading at Kimball Theater.
About 375 Williamsburg citizens, College students and faculty are estimated to have attended the reading, which included a question and answer session, book signing, and reception.
“Prose falls, poetry floats,” said Collins at the workshop Wednesday afternoon. “Poetry is a bird, prose is a potato.” Collins spent much of the workshop trying to define poetry. While he did not come to a definite conclusion, he provided various possibilities, quoting such literary greats as Dante and Hardy.
“I think poetry probably allows more imaginative freedom than prose,” Collins said. “I like to put pressure on writers to take advantage of the wild [realm] of possibility.”
From the first poem Collins read to the almost full house Wednesday night, this imaginative spirit was apparent. He opened with “Dharma,” a poem about the merits of his dog, with no dependence on material possessions but “her brown coat and her modest blue collar, following only her wet nose, the twin portals of her steady breathing, followed only by the plume of her tail.”
The audience bubbled with laughter at this and other humorous poems, especially those relating to dogs (one from a pet’s point of view) and lanyards (“I have never seen anyone use a lanyard, or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,” writes Collins.)
“I think the interaction between Billy Collins and the audience far surpassed interactions I’ve seen between audiences and other poets,” said Eva Burch, Professor of English at the College. Collins’s visit to the College was the result of longtime, widespread requests from students, said Burch.
The Patrick Hayes Endowment, which began in the seventies, is meant to establish readings by writers of import at the College. Past guests have been the world-renowned poet Seamus Heaney and, most recently, short story writer and College alumni Courtney Brkic.
While the majority of the poems Collins read and explanations he gave reeked of his characteristic dry humor, there were serious moments as well. His poem “Japan,” about the joys of a favorite haiku, received sighs from the audience, while “Nostalgia,” which satirizes people’s tendency to romanticize the past, garnered laughs and nods of recognition.
“I like how he manages to be both serious and funny at the same time,” said longtime Collins fan Emily Flowers, a College freshman.