Billy Collins, two-time U.S. poet laureate, walked out onto the stage at the Skirball Cultural Center, his bald head resting like an egg inside a wiry nest of gray hair, his face that of a mischievous 7-year-old boy who knows everything and is barely able to contain his glee, and he immediately apologized for sounding like Kathleen Turner due to a cold. The crowd went wild, more a reaction to the poet’s charm than the puff-balliness of his joke. He then looked around the auditorium, noticing, as if for the first time, the room’s airport sterility, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the purple upholstered theater chairs, the potted saplings, the enormous bands of canary-colored Formica encircling the interior walls, and he said, with just the right note of sarcasm to remain polite, “Cool room with all these … yellow things going around.”
Certainly anyone with any sense of the history of poetry, of the more recent tradition of its public recitation before urban and beach-town bohemia, understood the tragedy implied by the remark. At one time, especially during the last great poetry renaissance — beginning with Allen Ginsberg and his reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in 1955 and ending with Nipsey Russell riffing about Los Angeles smog on The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973 — the art form was recognized by the overwhelming majority of Middle America as something radically opposed to the core values of the mainstream. With the possible exception of Robert Frost and Muhammad Ali, a poet was presumed to be a deviant who lived alone and spent long, sleepless nights tonguing the latch on Pandora’s Box, his eyes twirling like pinwheels, his own smoky blank verse being the hot air that spun the blades. Or else he was as timid and dainty as a single, sorrowful mushroom growing colorless amid flowers in a flower box, as invisible as good taste demanded he be.
Today the poet will nearly always be a college professor who is only publishing his poems as a way to gain tenure. As sharp as the V in his own sweater and as well behaved as the Hush in his own Puppies, this poet is as unlikely to ignite the souls of his listeners as a Union soldier in a Civil War re-enactment would be to raise the dead at Gettysburg.
So what, then, is Billy Collins exactly? Does a poet typically have his poetry animated and then made viral on YouTube? Does a poet typically release CDs of his recorded performances, in which he’s introduced by Bill Murray? A person brought in off the street and asked to sit in the lobby to guess the profession of the man on stage might have said, given the constant ohhs and ahhhs and fits of laughter and applause, that he was a juggler who didn’t drop a thing all evening.
“The maximum occupancy of the room for poetry is two: me and you,” Collins said. Indeed, with nothing else but the sound of his own voice, he was able to reduce the sizable audience into just such an intimate pairing. Did this self-proclamation make him a poet? Maybe he was more like a musician, a soloist of words and phrases expertly improvised like notes released from Charlie Parker’s horn. “No — there’s no erasure on a saxophone,” Collins replied to the question of whether or not his appeal somehow paralleled jazz.
“A good number of scholars would say that humor cheapens poetry,” I said to him after stumbling and pirouetting and tiptoeing over the spilled contents of somebody’s pill organizer on my way to the book-signing table. “How do you keep something as loud and attention-whorish as laughter from overpowering the inherent delicacy of the craft? Isn’t it a little like playing The Ballad of the Sad Young Men on a harp while wearing a red nose?” My question seemed immediately idiotic, as the angelic face of Harpo Marx, perhaps the greatest poet who ever walked the face of the Earth, flashed through my brain and, for a moment, became one with the face smiling Buddhalike back at me from the author’s chair.
“I never try to be funny,” said Collins, a little perplexed by the question. Like a dog, he was oblivious to the fact that by raising his eyebrows and cocking his head just so, he had the power to stop wars, alleviate human suffering and make the world a beautiful place. Or at least to make a room full of strangers think he was a very good boy.
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