Letter to Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate 2001-2002

Letter #1: Billy Collins

March 19, 2013

Dear Mr. Collins,

As we are strangers, I respectfully use this salutation; yet, there is something about your first name that seems to request intimacy. I mean, of course, that you’re a grown man named Billy. At what point did you decide NOT to grow up? Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s just that I grew up with Billy & Ricky & Jamie, and they became middle-aged William and Richard and James. It is refreshing – I admire your youthful optimism, just as I admire your poetry.

I stumbled upon you in 2007, when I watched “The Dead” on YouTube. Those simple images remained in my head; this year, when my students needed to find a “contemporary poem on death”, the images came flooding back, and I added your poem to our reading package. They found the images appealing, calming even. I did not think the young could contemplate death at all; I never did.

I imagine you were the same in your youth – always moving forward, never looking to the side to see what dangers lurked there.

Back when I was young, and enamoured with poets such as yourself, had you been a visiting writer, I might have flirted with you, dabbled in you, hoped that a moment of intimacy would have allowed your talent to rub onto me. Sex is never just sex for young women; it is connection. As if another’s touch is a gift of flesh.

Would I sleep with you?

I am at an age when I am no longer moved by the clever words of an older male.
That gift comes with too steep a price tag, because I look for danger on every side. Even if your face on the book jacket seems sincere, jovial even, I no longer swoon to look at your photo, as I might have done in my early twenties.

We grow more rigid.

Did your shoulders sag under the weight of 9/11?
Did you feel the insufferable burden to turn that tragedy into poetry?

What a terrible time to be a poet.
What pressure you must have felt to create

something meaningful

while wondering if you could live up to your laurels.

Did you ever want to quit? To close down and shut up while fragments of Eliot drifted through your brain? To realize that you had not thought Death had undone so many?

I don’t envy you that job – of being poet Laureate when the world fell apart. But I am consoled by the fact that you are a man of the people:

you write like a guy in a coffee shop,
and a prophet on the subway,
and everyone wants to fill your cup and feed you words

that come out more beautifully on the other side.


Libby Letters


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