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Billy Collins

In college and graduate school, I had numerous opportunities to meet many remarkable poets, one of whom was Billy Collins. He served two consecutive terms as Laureate from 2001 to 2003, during which time he instituted the Poetry 180 project. Poetry 180 is meant to bring poetry into United States high schools on each of the 180 days students are in school. It provides 180 poems (selected by Collins with high school students in mind) as well as a poetry and literature center and tips for teachers on taking part in the program and reading poems aloud.

Of all the poetry readings I have seen over the years, I remember Mr. Collins’ reading particularly well simply because I do not think I have ever laughed so much at a reading before.  His brilliant sense of humor draws the listener (or reader) into the poem and, like peeling away the layers of an onion, deeper sentiments and epiphanies are revealed as the poem unfolds.

Collins has won many prizes including the Levinson Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, and the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to name only a few. For the past thirty years, he has taught at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he is Distinguished Professor of English. Two of my favorite books by Collins are Questions About Angels and Nine Horses.

The poem “Forgetfulness, ” from Questions About Angels, highlights that sense of humor.

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never
even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a
bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Copyright 1991 Billy Collins

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