More than 1,500 people filled the seats in Union South’s Varsity Hall to hear former Poet Laureate Billy Collins read his works and comment on the world of poetry Monday evening.
Students, faculty and community members sat on the edge of their seats while two students also read their works – University of Wisconsin sophomore Jack Tangel and UW-Platteville junior David Stienmetz.
As part of the Distinguished Lecture Series and the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Lit Fest, Collins took the stage to thunderous applause and started the reading by cracking a joke that appealed to every Wisconsinite in attendance.
“Thank you so much … you love cheese and poetry,” he said.
Throughout the course of the evening, Collins read 20 poems and two haikus, interspersing comments and insights about the poems and poetry in general.
Collins writes about people and their relationships with their surroundings, which include horoscopes, Mondays, childhood crafts and pets, just to name a few.
The poetry Collins writes is characterized by irony and humor, but it still tackles serious subjects, such as his poem “Horoscopes for the Dead.”
He said he started writing the poem while glancing at the horoscopes one day. Like anyone, he started with his own and then moved to a good friend’s. It was then he realized how futile it was to read his friend’s horoscope because his friend had died.
While Collins read “Horoscopes for the Dead,” audience members laughed at his parody, but became quiet when Collins read the pieces of the poem referring specifically to death, such as the image of his friend in a coffin.
Collins said he finds this subtle use of humor most interesting and effective.
“One of the things I do love about poetry is that you can mix the serious and the silly,” he said.
Where a poem ends up is also something Collins experiments with in his works. He said one reason that people find poetry difficult is the action that happens from the beginning to the end and how stable it is.
“Many of the poems start out kind of straightforwardly and try to go somewhere,” he said. “And where they try to go is a less clear place, a less stable place – stuff like that interests me.”
According to the Library of Congress website, the poet laureate is chosen by the Librarian of Congress to raise the visibility of poetry and writing. Former poets laureate include William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost. Collins held the position from 2001 to 2003.
Currently an English professor at the City University of New York, Collins has published eight works of poetry, the most recent of which was released last week.
UW junior Heather Sheets said she liked seeing so many people attend the event.
“Billy Collins has humor and great poignancy and I think that’s why all the seats were filled,” Sheets said. “He can captivate the people who want to laugh and also the people who want to think a little deeper about what’s going on.”