Poet with populist streak to read in Columbia

If there is a stubbornly stereotypical image of poets writing in seclusion for a relatively small audience, it certainly does not apply to Billy Collins. His readings around the country are known to attract crowds, so he won't be alone when he gives a reading on Thursday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m., in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

Brought here by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, this 73-year-old poet is a high visible and audible presence on the national poetry scene. Most prominently, he spread the word about poetry while serving as poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.

His local visit epitomizes his attitude that poetry is not elitist and should be shared by everybody. Collins's public reading is the culminating event in a week at Howard Community College devoted to events including student workshops, a film series, and National Poem in Your Pocket Day.

As part of these activities, Collins is scheduled to give a short reading along with the college's faculty, staff and students at a free event open to the public on April 24 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Smith Theatre.

It's little wonder that the New York Times once called Billy Collins "the most popular poet in America." That populist stance also was cited when Collins served as poet laureate of the United States. In announcing Collins' appointment to the poet laureate position, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said at the time: "Billy Collins's poetry is widely accessible. He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist."

Collins has communicated with a wide audience through his 10 books of poetry, the most recent of which, "Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems," was published in 2013. This most recent volume includes 50 new poems that continue his esthetic mission of finding eternal truths in everyday life.

One of the new poems, for instance, has the mundane title "Cheerios." This breakfast cereal-themed poem begins: "One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago/ as I waited for my eggs and toast,/ I opened the Tribune only to discover/ that I was the same age as Cheerios."

This poem goes on to note that he and Cheerios are both over 70 years old, and, in fact, that he's even a few months older than this iconic cereal brand. The remainder of the poem amounts to a breakfast table meditation about what it means to reach a certain age.

Besides his own volumes of poetry, Collins has edited books including "Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry" and "180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day." These two books are a part of his effort to get students in particular to think about and recite poetry on a daily basis.

His other venues for spreading the word about poetry include being a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor's public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion."

Such outlets amount to public forums for imparting lessons about poetry.

In terms of formally imparting lessons, Collins is Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, whose faculty he joined in 1968. The Manhattan-born poet's ties to that region also include being poet laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006.

He doesn't just rest on his laurels, however, because poetry only matters when it's read and preferably when it's read out loud. That's why he's visiting Columbia.

Poet Billy Collins gives a reading Thursday, April 24, at 7:30 p.m., at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. A book signing and reception follow the reading. Tickets are $30, $20 for seniors, $15 for students. There also are $50 tickets for the first three rows. Call 443-518-4568 or go to ww.brownpapertickets.com or http://www.hocopolitso.org.

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