October 1, 2002 | CUNY Matters Columns
Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins–he is also our CUNY colleague, a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College–invites us to “take a poem/ and hold it up to the light like a color slide.” Or, if you like, “walk inside the poem’s room/ and feel the walls for a light switch.” Or imagine trying to “water-ski across the surface of a poem/ waving at the author’s name on the shore.”
The message of Collins’ poem, aptly titled “Introduction to Poetry,” is clear: poetry has a place in our daily life, and we should avail ourselves of its nourishment. According to Collins’ educational website “Poetry 180″–a major initiative of his laureate year (www.loc.gov/poetry/180)–poetry has the power to restore us or even transform us, to “inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race.”
Now more than ever, the City of New York and the entire nation can benefit from that message. This academic year we will be celebrating poetry around the City University and throughout the City with a major program called “CUNY is Reading: The Poets of CUNY.”
The program will be inaugurated with a lecture by Billy Collins and a VIP reception to follow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on October 15. Professor Collins–whom I congratulate once again on being appointed last spring to serve a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry–read an elegy for the victims of September 11 at a historic special session of Congress at Federal Hall on September 6. Titled “The Names,” the moving poem can be found in full on the CUNY web site.
The program will highlight the wealth of intellectual and artistic talent at CUNY, and in particular its richness in great poets–from legendary past figures like the late Allen Ginsberg and Queens College Professor Emerita Marie Ponsot (winner of the National Book Critics Award), to former faculty like John Hollander, John Ashbery and Anne Lauterbach, to current bards like Baruch College’s Grace Schulman, the Graduate Center’s Edouard Glissant, City Tech’s Ellen Goldsmith, CCNY’s National Book Award winner Marilyn Hacker, and many others.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in green rows in a field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
– the last stanza of “The Names,” read by Billy Collins before Congress in New York City on September 6.
That depth of poetic excellence extends as well to our students, the poets of the future. If, as Walt Whitman once observed, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” CUNY, with its remarkably diverse and talented faculty and student body, is a microcosm of that national poem, and the source of some of its most stirring refrains.
Billy Collins’ inaugural lecture in “The Poets of CUNY” program promises to be a memorable evening of stimulating thought, word and image. I invite anyone with poetic inclinations, inspirations, or publications to join us this October for our first gathering in this important series.(For more details about this event and those to follow, visit the CUNY home page, www.cuny.edu).