- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

BEARSVILLE, N.Y. How poetic is the setting at the Bearsville Theater, just outside of Woodstock. Incense sweetens the air. A harpist plays. A vase of sunflowers and snapdragons stands near an old wooden lectern. Hundreds are arriving for the final day of the first Woodstock Poetry Festival. They have come to hear Billy Collins, America's new poet laureate. Outside, the sun shines to perfection, a veritable song seeking praise from the guest of honor.
But by the time Mr. Collins is introduced to loud applause and a few hoots and hollers the harpist is gone and the incense has faded, like another opening act. The sun does not shine on this stage.
Bald and slightly built, his dry, droll manner a reminder of Kevin Spacey, the 60-year-old Mr. Collins is no bewigged poet of pen and quill. He's a modern man, dressed in denim. He's modest, too, joking about his new job ("Now, my opinion is valued"), and his work ("Almost completely lacking in development over the years.")
Versed in both classic texts and contemporary slang, Mr. Collins belongs to a seemingly endangered species the popular poet. As Mr. Collins himself knows well, his last three books have sold 100,000 copies, a substantial figure for poetry, even more so since he was published by the small University of Pittsburgh Press.
He received a six-figure advance to sign with Random House and his new book, "Sailing Alone Around the World," already has sold out a 35,000 first printing. Ten thousand copies were sold in June, the month he was named poet laureate by the Library of Congress.
When Mr. Collins is praised, as he often is, a certain word keeps appearing: "accessible." In announcing his appointment as poet laureate, the library noted: "He is accessible." The chair of the English department at Lehman College in New York City, where Mr. Collins teaches, has defined his poetry as "accessible to all willing to follow him."
But Mr. Collins is not necessarily flattered. Being called "accessible" is something he both fears and aspires to, comparing it to a girl endlessly labeled "cute."
"Anybody can write an accessible poem," says Mr. Collins, seated in an upstairs office at an art gallery in downtown Woodstock. "It's what happens when a reader gets inside the poem that's important. Accessible is a device to lure the reader into the poem, where much less accessible things happen."
Mr. Collins' poems are mostly just a page or two, written in a direct, humorous, intimate style. He writes in a post-allegorical world, of love and not of love. There are no ancient muses to summon, no gods to thank. The eternal resides in more "accessible" stuff: mice, parsley, a wheelbarrow, some Irish cows.

A native New Yorker, Mr. Collins didn't bother much with poetry as a child, although Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Carlos Williams was reportedly a doctor at the hospital where he was born. He read plenty of fiction, but Mr. Collins' first artistic epiphany arrived in the form of jazz, still a favorite subject of his work. He was around 13, working at his uncle's lakeside hotel in Ontario.
"I was mowing a lawn and a speedboat pulled into the dock with these two very strange-looking couples one of the guys had a goatee," recalls Mr. Collins, who now lives in suburban Somers, N.Y.
"And they set up a kind of phonograph or something on the dock, and they stayed there for a couple of days. They sat around drinking wine and eating and listening to this music. And it was Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall performance that they kept playing. It was the first time I heard jazz, and I was completely hooked."
But Mr. Collins' gift was for poetry, not jazz. Although a bit of a beatnik in his younger days, he followed a traditional academic path: English major at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside, a longtime teaching position at Lehman College.
His verse was published in small journals, then noticed by such established poets as Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch. Garrison Keillor began reading his verse on National Public Radio, and in 1997 invited Mr. Collins to appear on his show. An accessible poet had been born.
"One of my colleagues summed it up succinctly," said Mr. Collins, whose one-year term in Washington begins this fall. "When she first knew me, I was a professor who happened to be a poet. Now, I'm a poet who happens to be a professor."
The role, and the title, of America's official poet has changed over time. From 1937 to 1986, appointees were named "Consultant in Poetry," as if iambic pentameter were a matter of state. They did little more than perform official functions, such as presiding over readings in Washington.
While the position was renamed to the more artistic "Poet Laureate" in 1987, it initially remained private and ceremonial. Robert Penn Warren, the first poet to have the new title, declared: "I don't expect you'll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan."
But over the past decade, incumbents have become public figures, missionaries of verse. The Russian emigre Joseph Brodsky, appointed in 1991, sought to distribute inexpensive editions of poetry. Maxine Kumin initiated workshops for women. Robert Pinsky compiled a volume of the public's favorite work.
"Brodsky was really the one who started the outreach efforts," says Prosser Gifford, director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress.
"He came out of a completely different culture. He had been a figure of enormous cultural importance and he was quite disappointed poets weren't paid much attention."
Mr. Collins, who this month replaces outgoing poet laureate Stanley Kunitz, is an experienced teacher and public reader who plans to build on his predecessors' efforts. He outlines a project called "Poetry 180," named for the estimated number of school days in a given year. The idea is that a different poem will be read in high schools each day.
"There are poems and we're getting to the word accessible that students can get on the first reading. There are also poems high school students would have no trouble relating to open-ended, hospitable, sometimes funny poems," he says.
"I want to discourage English teachers from discussing the poem, analyzing it. The poem is not going to be on the midterm. It's not just something you study in English class, but it's something that's a feature of daily life."

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