Walking Towards the Vanishing Point: On Billy Collins

Introduction of Poet Laureate Billy Collins
Miami Beach Community Church
April 1st, 2012
Miami, Florida

How many of you are hearing Billy Collins read for the first time?

I ask because listening to Billy read is one of the great pleasures, right up there with a walk on the beach on an evening like this or a great martini any evening. It’s a jazz piano voice. A voice you trust.

It’s the voice of someone who was read to as a child.

Billy said in an interview once, “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to recreate the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child.”

I wonder what Billy’s mother’s voice was like. She read to him. He was an only child.

I’ve imagined that child—young, mischievous Billy Collins getting dressed in his uniform to face the nuns at St. Joan of Arc Elementary School in Queens. What was April Fool’s Day like in that school?

Billy says of his poems that “their clothes are ironed and their buttons done up—except sometimes maybe the top one.” Dressed but not overdressed for school or the party.

Maybe we can thank the early rigors of Catholic school for Billy’s great gift to poetry of getting it to loosen its tie and have a good time. I mean, he did write a book called Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.

April Fools is certainly not a bad night to think of our great former Poet Laureate as a little bit of a delinquent. Though, it’s true that instead of hanging out at the mall, Billy paces the sidewalks of the dictionary, loiters in the Bridge column of the New York Times, goes for long walks with the dog.

Billy loves to walk.

Here on the beach too. As he confides in that lovely recent poem “The Flâneur,” walking in Florida is, surprise, not like walking in Paris.

“But who needs Europe?” Billy writes, “as a boy flew by on a skateboard/and I fell into a reverie on the folly of youth/and the tender, distressing estrangement of my life.”

“The tender, distressing estrangement of my life.” I could talk all day about a last line like that. (Don’t worry.)

But for those of us who can’t use a real wrench and instead walk around showing off our tool belts of poetry lingo, we would begin by admiring the anapests, the gerund, the internal rhymes, the flat e- sounds hushing the line and —just as we’d gotten all our tools out to do a number on it, we would realize the poem itself had quietly walked off stage.

So forget the tool belt. Just travel with that word “tender!” And you have to smile knowing Billy is walking by tipping his hat to Keats, who is sitting under that plum tree writing “Ode to a Nightingale.” And Billy is winking at Fitzgerald and glamorous Dick Diver raises a glass.

And you think “tender?” Tender means something delicate and soft. But you also think of gifts—something tendered, something given, from the Latin word to stretch or extend—Billy reaching his hand to ours.

And estrangement? Now THAT’S what we always say we want and need our poets to do.

To become estranged is to step outside, to look at things from a distance, to turn away from what we expect, to take us somewhere else, to make us realize we’re not exactly who we think we are.

As Billy has written, his poems move “from the familiar to the strange, from coziness to disorientation.” In his poems, we go from thinking we’re friends to really wanting to be friends, to realizing maybe we’re welcome strangers walking side by side, having a suddenly intimate conversation, a good laugh.

If Facebook were Billy’s philosophy of life, this wonderfully powerful zigzagging of emotion would have Billy friending and maybe unfriending us for suspense, saying it’s complicated, friending us again—with each stanza! It’s as exhilarating as being a teenager.

The poet Stephen Dunn has written, “We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going.” Travel and a just little irresponsibility—a love for wandering off—it’s what’s so compellingly unpredictable of going along with Billy for the saunter or the ride.

As he wrote in a wonderful recent essay about his love for Looney Tunes cartoons, “I didn’t know what ‘running away from home’ meant until I saw Porky Pig walking toward the vanishing point with a stick over his shoulder, a polka dot kerchief tied to it containing the sum of his material possessions.”

Billy takes us from our comfortable selves to that vanishing point. Tonight is your chance to run away from home in the spirit of Porky the Pig, Bookworm, Little Blattermouse and, ladies and gentlemen, … Billy Collins.

Related: Introduction O Miami Miami poetry