June 21, 2001 | The University
Poet Billy Collins, a professor of English at Lehman College of The City University of New York, has been named by the Library of Congress as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. His term will run for one year.
The University Board of Trustees also honored Prof. Collins and eight fellow faculty members with appointments as Distinguished Professors, CUNY’s highest faculty rank reserved for a very small group of highly influential scholars and artists. Prof. Collins is CUNY’s first Poet Laureate.
“This extraordinary achievement places Prof. Collins alongside Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks and other great American poets who have served as Poet Laureate,” said Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor of The City University of New York.” Professor Collins has been teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx since 1969 where he serves as Professor of English. Next week, the CUNY Board of Trustees is scheduled to designate nine leading scholars, including Professor Collins, as Distinguished Professors, the highest faculty honor the University can bestow.”
“These twin accolades indicate the esteem with which Billy Collins is held within both the academic and literary worlds,” said Dr. Ricardo R. Fernández, president of Lehman. “Few poets have bridged those worlds with such popular success and critical acclaim while also remaining a superb undergraduate teacher. His students and colleagues at Lehman applaud and celebrate these achievements, especially because of his valued commitment to the classroom, which has remained a constant in his life and that of our College.”
Dr. Jack Kligerman, chair of Lehman’s English Department, who has known Billy Collins since the poet first began teaching at the College , described him as “a meditative poet. His magic is to take the most ordinary, common experiences of life, turn them over and around in his poems, and find the meanings that are present within. His language, in the best Wordsworthian sense, is the ‘real’ language of men and women. He cares for his reader and takes him or her along with him on his poetical journeys. That is, his poetry is accessible to all willing to follow him. Nothing in Billy Collins’ world is without meaning: not the barking of a neighbor’s dog nor the reading of his students’ essays. His poetry has deepened and been enriched as he has matured.”
Speaking at the Lehman Convocation in October 2000, Dr. Collins used the occasion to speak of the changes in the student body he had witnessed over the years and how the need to teach more courses in basic writing had, in the end, supported his aspirations as a poet. He discovered, he said, that there was “a place for poetry” even in the most basic composition courses, which led him then to see the broader connections between poetry and learning.
Both poetry and education, he noted, require “a slowing down,” which he saw as an important advantage in our age of speeded-up information.
“Let the speed-bumps of university life,” he said, “act as a check to the often mindless speed of contemporary life. Let us slow back down from the computer to the television, to the newspaper, to the essay, to the novel, and finally to poetry. This supersonic, digital age demands rapidity. But poetry can slow us down to the speed of sound, and university life can slow us down to the speed of thought, the leisurely pace of deliberation.”
For many years, writing was a sidelight in Dr. Collins’ teaching career at Lehman, which is a senior CUNY college in the Bronx. His early poems appeared in poetry journals and university publications. Two years after his first book was published by the University of Arkansas, his manuscript “Questions About Angels” was selected by the poet Edward Hirsch as a winner of the annual National Poetry Series competition. It was published by Morrow and that began to establish Dr. Collins’s literary reputation.
The University of Pittsburgh Press published his next three books: “The Art of Drowning” (1995), “Picnic, Lightning” (1998) and “Questions About Angels” (reprinted from Morrow). Together, these books have sold more than 90,000 copies-virtually unheard of for a poet. His CD “The Best Cigarette” sold out in its first pressing.
A crucial moment in Dr. Collins’s meteoric ride to national popularity came in 1997, after “Picnic, Lightning” was published. Garrison Keilor, who had read several of Collins’s poems during the “Writer’s Almanac” feature on National Public Radio, invited him to appear on his show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Shortly after that, Dr. Collins was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” His book sales surged, and requests poured in from schools and colleges for his readings.
Dr. Collins’s fans are a diverse group ranging from high school and college students to famous writers such as John Updike and fellow poet Edward Hirsch, who has called him “an American original-a metaphysical poet with a funny bone, and a sly, questioning intelligence.” His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the 1999 J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize, and the 1999 Patterson Poetry Prize. His ninth book, “Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems,” will be published by Random House later this year.
Born in New York City in 1941, Dr. Collins graduated from Holy Cross College and earned a doctorate in romantic poetry at the University of California at Riverside. He lives in Westchester County with his wife, Diane, an architect.
Links: Billy Collins’ home page, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein congratulates Prof. Collins, Governor Pataki congratulates Prof. Collins, New Poet Laureate reads his work at CUNY Board Meeting
News Coverage: CNN, New York Times “Public Lives” column, New York Times report, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, USA Today, Newsweek, Daily News “Ideas & Opinions” column, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Journals News of Westchester, San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit News