Poetry & Trains, Billy Collins

Poetry and Trains, Operating at Strolling Speed

Gregg Matthews for The New York Times

The works of the poet Billy Collins, at home, are being featured at a poetry walk that is part of the New York Botanical Garden’s annual holiday train show.

By JANE L. LEVERE

Published: December 19, 2013

The New York Botanical Garden is bringing the magic of its annual holiday train show outdoors to its bare but still beautiful Bronx grounds this winter, with a special poetry walk featuring the works of Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States and of the State of New York.

Now in its 22nd year, the train show features models of New York landmarks, made of natural materials like bark, twigs, fruits and seeds, through which 21 model railway trains and trolleys speed.

Lining the paths that wind around the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and lead to the visitor center are placards featuring 16 of Mr. Collins’s poems — verses about trains, winter and that eternal subject, love — as well as a reproduction of a 1912 drawing of a chugging steam train.

Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America, which has been collaborating with the Botanical Garden since 2010, invited Mr. Collins to select poems for the walk.

He was an ideal candidate, she said, and not only because he writes “splendid” poems about winter and trains, including one commemorating the 2013 centennial of Grand Central Terminal, reproduced on subway placards and MetroCards and featured in the train show walk.

She also said Mr. Collins, a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx since 2000 and a resident of northern Westchester, “loves the garden.”

The collaboration between the garden and the poetry society began with the garden’s spring 2010 exhibition, “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” which featured 35 Dickinson poems scattered throughout the landscape. In the spring and summer of 2012, they worked together on “Monet’s Garden”; the accompanying poetry walk showcased poets who were contemporaries of Monet’s, such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

This poetry walk is the first staged during the winter, a time when visitors might not ordinarily take a stroll. And it is the first time a walk has featured the works of a living poet, and both the garden and poetry society are taking full advantage of that.

Mr. Collins — a veritable rock star in the poetry world who promoted his latest book, “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems 2003-2013,” on shows as varied as PBS’s “NewsHour” and “The Colbert Report” — recently gave a sold-out reading of his and others’ poems at the garden (the reading is on YouTube). Visitors to the poetry walk hear Mr. Collins discuss the poems in the exhibition (or his craft in general) by calling a phone number printed on the placards of many of the poems on the walk.

Ever the droll, dry wit, Mr. Collins mentioned in a recent phone interview that he had never heard of anything quite like the poetry walk coupled with commentary from the poet.

“More commonly, I share the ground with other poets,” he said. “This is unique, because it’s all Billy Collins all the time. I went into a studio and recorded audio commentaries on the poems. The thought is to add a reader-friendly aspect. While you stand outdoors, you can hear the poet on your phone talking about the composition of the poem.”

This concept, he added, “is an interesting enhancement to the experience. Having read the poem, you can hear something coming from the horse’s mouth, how the poem got composed, what the thinking was behind the poem. It certainly has the possibility of being illuminating.”

For visitors, listening to a poet describe the creation of his work is comparable to a museumgoer with an audio guide “listening to Cézanne himself saying where he was when he was painting the apples,” Mr. Collins said.

Thus, discussing the creation of “Snow Day,” about waking up “to a revolution of snow,” when schools like Ding-Dong School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School and Peanuts Play School were closed, Mr. Collins said he found the names of the schools in the Westchester Yellow Pages.

In his commentary on “Love,” which describes an infatuated young man meeting the cellist he adores on a train, Mr. Collins said he witnessed such an encounter on a Metro-North train and wrote it down so as not to forget it. “It’s a good example of one aspect of poetry,” he said, “and that is that poetry is a way to preserve memory.”

Ms. Quinn said she enjoyed hearing Mr. Collins’s telephone commentary. “Art is magical,” she said. “It’s wonderful to hear from people who make it.”

Also appealing, said Gregory Long, president and chief executive of the garden, is that the walk is “very low-tech. One thing people like is that it’s very accessible.”

Mr. Collins’s willingness to participate in the garden’s walk no doubt reflects his continuing campaign to make poetry part of everyday life.

“It’s not just something in the classroom,” he said. “The New York Botanical Garden is demonstrating that there is a fit for poetry in many places you don’t expect it to fit. Poetry can enhance, add to many experiences, in contexts that are not particularly associated with poetry, like a train show.”

The Holiday Train Show and Poetry Walk are at the New York Botanical Garden through Jan. 12. The garden is at 2900 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. For more information: nybg.org; (718) 817-8700.

A version of this article appears in print on December 22, 2013, on page WE10 of the New York edition with the headline: Poetry and Railroads, Operating at Strolling Speed.

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