When Seminary President M. Craig Barnes and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recently appeared before a standing-room-only audience at the library to discuss the connections between poetry and faith, they brought both levity and gravitas to their lively dialogue.
By Richard Trenner – Billy Collins is one of the most celebrated poets of the present day. Collins, Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, served as the National Poet Laureate from 2001–2003 and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004–2006. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Welcoming some 300 people—students, faculty, administrators, and many Princeton area residents—Barnes said: “One reason I invited Dr. Collins to speak at a theological school is that I believe there are a lot of parallels between what it means to be a pastor or theologian and what it means to be a poet. When pastors and theologians try to hone our craft, we have much to learn from poetry.”
“When pastors and theologians try to hone our craft, we have much to learn from poetry.” —M. Craig Barnes
The dialogue between the president and the poet was wide-ranging. A theme of the evening was how creativity, like faith, can emanate from the heart of an individual and then radiate out to inspire creativity and faith in others.
The dialogue, like many of the poems Collins read, was both serious and humorous. As Barnes said to Collins, “I’ve heard you described as a poet who puts the fun in profundity.” He illustrated the point by alluding to “Joy,” a poem in which Collins describes watching the sun come up and go down on a single day in Key West.
Although “Joy” is a lyrical meditation on the mystery of time, the poem ends suddenly with a wildly incongruous line: “before lighting up an El Stinko cigar.” Barnes asked Collins, “How do you find a balance between playfulness and gravitas—between rapture and a stinky cigar?”
“It's not so much a matter of balance but of strategy—a matter of finding a shift point in a poem,” Collins responded. “My persona wants to be a little slippery. I’ve created the persona of a rustic flâneur or wanderer—a man of reverie and speculation—a good-natured man, I think.” Collins added: “My persona doesn’t want to write a poem that is completely grieving or completely silly. He likes to mix the two up in slightly disorienting ways. One of the pleasures of literature is disorientation.”
Collins described how his decision to embrace rather than avoid humor was a turning point in his literary career. “A critical moment in my life,” he said, “was in my mid-30s, when I figured out how to write. Before that I didn’t know how to write. I was imitating other poets by writing pathetic beatnik poetry in high school and pathetic beatnik poetry in college. The big permission slip,” he added, “was poets who showed me that it is all right to be funny without being silly. Until then, I’d been repressing my humor because I thought you had to be miserable in order to write poetry.”
Barnes insisted that pastors have much to learn from poets. As he said to Collins, “Much of your poetry takes images from daily life and finds wonder in them. To some degree that's what we're trying to teach our students to do. And we think that’s part of the theological task: to look beneath the surface of things and see the miracle and mystery, or the despair and heartache.”
“Princeton Seminary shaped and equipped me for the teaching ministry that I am practicing now. I was shaped spiritually, mentally, and socially by all means.”