Last Wednesday night, the rain held off for Sunken Garden Poetry at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and the largest crowd of the year heard the former United States Poet Laureate (2001–2003) Billy Collins read his poetry for a little more than an hour. His casual demeanor and the context of the garden setting, peopled with picnickers, contributed to a informal, intimate listening experience, a tone he tries to strike with his poetry:
“I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/billy-collins)
Based on the reaction from the crowd, his concerns about a wrong step was unfounded. Since most of his poems are fairly short, he was able to offer a broad range of topics and observations. There were mice, glistening bars of soap, ill-fitting dinner jackets, a few “frog-less” haikus, and commentaries on adolescent behavior.
He began the reading with You Reader:
I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you
He followed that up with the hilarious Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House where the opening line explains “another reason why”…
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
Over the course of the evening, Collins read his poems to the appreciative audience. His themes ranged from comical to heartbreaking. You can click the following links to the published texts or video recordings in the order he read them to “attend” your own Billy Collin’s reading:
The Sand Hill Cranes of Nebraska
Drinking Alone after Li Po
After the Funeral (p. 62)
Dress Code (pg.19)
To My Favorite 17-year-old High School Girl
The Dog on His Master and The Reverent
Oh My God (audio poor)
Flock (poem read in interview)
Hippos on Holiday
I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice”
Collins delivered each of his poems in his conversational tone- dry, wry, and understated. Leaving the poetry reading, I could not help but start to “think” in Collins’s cadence. Later that evening, my thoughts matched his tempo:
I had heard the poet at a reading once before,
when he read the blind mice poem that made me laugh.
I bought the book Sailing Alone Around the Room
and found inside the poems Sonnet and Aristotle that I now use
with my Advanced Placement students, but I do not teach
Taking Off Emily Dickenson’s Clothes.
They do not appreciate the Belle of Amherst the way Billy and I do.
The standing ovation
became a mass migration,
some to their cars and some to the table
where the poet scrawled his signature
repeatedly into book after book after book.
Later when I crushed my bedroom pillow
up to the headboard, I wondered
if he was still held hostage to his adoring fans?
Sunken Garden Poetry should be commended for organizing a memorable summer evening. This coming winter, I suspect that a number of those who attended will turn to a companion, and quote Billy Collins and say, “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago.”