My Book Club decided to devote one of our meetings to a conversation about poetry.  I have researched two of my favorite poets which I will bring to the discussion.

Billy Collins - U. S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003

You would not expect that a man named Billy Collins would be a U. S. Poet Laureate, but he does hold that honor.  I have seen Billy Collins twice at the Chautauqua Institution and have always been impressed by his humor, his intelligence, and his love of the English language.  He will be back again in Chautauqua in August, speaking about his latest book of poems entitled “Aimless Love.”

Background of Billy Collins

Billy Collins has been called "The most popular poet in America" by the New York Times.  He was born in New York City in 1941.  An Irish Catholic, he attended Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains and received a B.A. in English from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963, and received his M.A. and Ph.D in English from the University of California, Riverside.


Billy CollinsCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                    Billy Collins - Photo by Suzannah Gilman - Wikimedia

His Present Day Career

Billy Collins presently is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he joined the faculty in 1968 and has taught for over thirty years.  He is also a faculty member at SUNY Stonybrook where he teaches poetry workshops.  In 1992, Collins was recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library.  He was selected as the New York State Poet from 2004-2006.

The poet has conducted summer poetry workshops in Ireland at University College Galway, and has taught at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence.  In 2005, he was the first annual recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry.  He lives in Somers, New York and is unmarried.

Growth of Billy Collins’ Popularity

Collins’ poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.  In 2002, as U.S. Poet Laureate, he was asked to write a poem commemorating the first anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11. The reading was in front of a joint session of Congress held outside of Washington D.C.

Though Collins published throughout the 1980s, it was his fourth book, “Questions about Angels,” published in 1991, which propelled him into the literary spotlight.  In 1997, he recorded “The Best Cigarette,” a collection of 34 of his poems, which became a bestseller.  He has appeared on Keillor's radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, numerous times, where he gained a portion of his large following.  He counts the actor Bill Murray as one of his closest friends.

A Sample of Billy Collins’ Writing

Billy Collins’ latest collection of his poems is entitled “Aimless Love,” published in 201.  A sample of his writing is shown here in his poem called “Envoy.”

Go, little book/out of this house and into the world,/carriage made of paper rolling toward town/bearing a single passenger/beyond the reach of this jittery pen/and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.

It is time to decamp,/put on a jacket and venture outside,/time to be regarded by other eyes,/bound to be held in foreign hands.

So off you go, infants of the brain,/with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:/ stay out as late as you like,/don’t bother to call or write,/and talk to as many strangers as you can.


Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
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My second choice is listed below.

Mary Oliver - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio.  As a young poet, she was deeply influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  When she was a teenager, she lived briefly in the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she helped Millay’s sister sort through the papers the poet left behind.  This activity left a great impression on her.  Millay's influence is apparent in Oliver's first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems (1963).


Pulitzer PrizeCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                              Pulitzer Prize - Wikimedia

Mary Oliver attended Ohio State University as well as Vassar College, although she never received a college degree.

Mary Oliver’s Awards

Her “New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award in 1992.  She received the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry “American Primitive” in 1983.  Other honors include an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Mary Oliver made her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts for more than fifty years and taught at Bennington College until 2001.  She currently lives on the southeastern coast of Florida.  Her long-time partner, photographer Molly Malone Cooke, was her literary agent until her death in 2005.

Mary Oliver’s Love of Nature

It has been said of Mary Oliver that she is as “visionary as Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The New York Times described her as "far and away, this country's best-selling poet."  It is said that Mary Oliver’s familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling.  Her earliest poems are almost always oriented towards nature, in contrast to her later works where the persona of Mary Oliver is expressed, a rich and graceful addition.

Mary Oliver is an avid walker and often pursues inspiration on foot. Her verses focus on what she sees in nature on her walks: hummingbirds, egrets, quiet ponds, owls, shore birds water snakes, the phases of the moon, and humpback whales.


American Primitive
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A Sample of Mary Oliver’s Writing

A sample of her writing is shown here in her poem “Sleeping in the Forest.”

I thought the earth remembered me,/she took me back so tenderly,/arranging her dark skirts, her pockets/full of lichens and seeds./I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,/nothing between me and the white fire of the stars/but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths/among the branches of the perfect trees./All night I heard the small kingdoms/breathing around me, the insects,/and the birds who do their work in the darkness./All night I rose and fell, as if in water,/grappling with a luminous doom. By morning/I had vanished at least a dozen times/into something better.

Usage rights of photographs of Mary Oliver are not available.  She can be seen on the video provided here.






Billy Collins: On the Road with the Poet Laureate
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