Billy Collins has been called America’s favorite poet.
He is the author of 12 celebrated collections of poetry, including The Rain in Portugal released last year. Billy Collins was United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003 and New York State Poet (2004-5). Last year he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also the editor of three renowned anthologies and his poems have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The American Scholar. He appears regularly in The Best American Poetry. A Guggenheim Fellow and a New York Public Library Literary Lion, he is former a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College, City University of New York and currently a Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College.
He would take me with him when I was a boy before that was something people did, the two of us riding the subway, then walking a few blocks in those canyon-like streets to the insurance company where he worked. There, he would set me free to wander up and down the long rows of typists, clacking away on their manual machines, fingernails red and hands blue from the carbon paper, famous for working the miracle of the triplicate. The place was an Avalon of supplies— reams of paper, envelopes neat in their boxes, even a franking machine, your own private post office. Sometimes I would stop to look down on the wide expanse of New York Harbor never guessing how many of the office’s rituals and devices would soon disappear for good into the gaping maw of obsolescence. Now the oasis of the water cooler is gone, and silenced is the aggregate racket of typing. Blown away is the haze of smoke from cigarettes. Gone, the ashtrays from every desk and the bigger ones by the elevators, their sand kept smooth and clean as if tended every night by a tiny man with a rake. No more thick tear-off calendars, the days disappearing one page at a time. No more fountain pen drawing its nectar from the black flower of an ink bottle. No more black rotary phone, ringing with good news, bad news, and worse. Gone, the switchboard and the intercom, cable room, Rolodex, and Dictaphone. Gone, too, the many paperweights, that weighed down the stacks of papers keeping them from blowing way on a hot summer day with the windows wide open and tall fans oscillating this way and that, and men in shirtsleeves leaning out high windows to catch a breeze. Goodbye to the hat rack and the hats they held, and gone the men themselves and gone my father, gone my father as well. Farewell, too, to the adding machine and the spindle where memos were impaled. They went away while you were out. But stay, oh paperclip and stay, oh rubber band still keepers of order, logic, and sense from the days of saloons and nightsticks, evening editions and newsreels to this day when you two wait at the ready in the cubicle of a worker in a towering glassy building, she who is looking at a screen as she uses a mouse to download an elephant, of all things, and to printout its picture in color, the huge creature traveling through a wire, then three of them materializing in her hand, a miracle in triplicate. Billy Collins