Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
— From The Names, by Billy Collins.
Like most modern poets, Billy Collins is unaccustomed to composing on cue. But when the United States Congress tells you to write a poem, you write a poem.
At least you do if you’re the country’s poet laureate, as Collins was in 2002, when he was asked to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attack. So he braided the names of some of the dead together with somber images — a pale sky, the twigs of an ash, a sudden updraft among buildings — to create a brooding processional. Then, as requested, he read the poem at a special joint session on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
You won’t find The Names in any of Collins’ published collections. It’s partly out of deference. But it’s also because he isn’t the kind of a poet to seek out grand gestures and momentous revelations.
He goes by Billy, not William. When he’s asked about his literary influences, he duly mentions the textbook-enshrined wordsmiths he introduced to students during 30 years of teaching at a small college in the Bronx. He also credits Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam: somehow, the wiseacre glee and anything-can-happen wit of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons have stayed with him since childhood.
You can see that in his poems. They are skipping stones with depth, playful but provocative, often circling obliquely toward a surprising twist on an everyday occurrence — say, the chronic barking of a neighbor’s dog (a poem he entitled One More Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.)
Rare is the poet who eschews the esoteric. Collins calls his works “hospitable,” and worries about how best to lead people into them. “So many things can go wrong at the beginning of a poem,” he says. “It’s like stepping into a canoe.”
It was that attitude that made him such a perfect fit for the Winter Park Institute, an ambitious Rollins College initiative meant to bridge the gap between academia and the community at large by bringing brilliant minds to town — Jane Goodall, Maya Angelou, Oliver Stone, Itzhak Perlman and many others — for public appearances and to engage with students and faculty members.
Collins was the program’s first speaker, in 2007. A year later, he accepted an invitation to become a permanent fixture as the Institute’s senior distinguished fellow. Since then, his presence, not to mention his connections, have been invaluable. He has brought in friends and acquaintances such as Paul Simon and Jane Pauley as speakers. He even arranged a surprise, students-only appearance this year by Paul McCartney, whom he had met at a book signing years ago and whose stepson was a Rollins student.
“I thought I was doing a pretty good job,” says Collins. Which was why he was as surprised as everyone else when he was told a few weeks ago that his contract with Rollins would not be renewed.
The move, which also puts the future of the Institute itself on shakier ground, was a budget-cutting measure. It also represents a philosophical sea change: Rollins, like every other liberal arts institution in the country, is reexamining its approach toward education, with an eye toward providing students with marketable job skills. You can see how a poet might not fit into that pragmatic approach.
“There’s a lot of pressure in favor of career-based curriculums,” says Collins. “But the idea of a first-class lecture series that exposes students to so many brilliant minds — these are the kinds of people a liberal arts institution should be cultivating.”
Even if you’re looking at this strictly from a financial point of view, how can you calculate the value of the publicity and the intellectual sheen that comes from having a two-time poet laureate on your campus?
“All I can tell you,” says former Rollins College President Rita Bornstein, “is that when I travel around the country and meet people, they’ll say: ‘Oh, Rollins. You have Billy Collins down there, don’t you?’”
Not any more, we don’t.
Michael McLeod is editor at large for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English Department at Rollins College.