UT’s Ransom Center acquires archive of famous poet Billy Collins

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has acquired the archive of poet Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003.

The archive of Collins, who’s widely viewed as the most popular and well-known poet in the United States since Robert Frost, includes materials about his personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present. The archive has dozens of notebooks, desk diaries and datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. It also includes childhood compositions, family photographs, letters and audio and video recordings of his speeches. The $425,000 purchase was made possible by private contributions.

“At the center of the papers are journals and diaries in which I compose poems,” says Collins via telephone from Key West, Fla., where he’s attending a writers workshop. “I compose by pencil or pen, almost always in a journal. And I put the poem through up to six or seven drafts … so that the journals are filled with poems in various stages.”

Collins, 72, says he sold the archive to the Ransom Center because of “its indisputable reputation, its prestige, its fame. It’s quite exciting to think of my papers coming to rest alongside so many powerful writers who have influenced me.”

The center holds extensive archives that include such poets as E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas.

“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”

Collins, a frequent guest on National Public Radio, is the kind of poet who can fill a theater like Austin’s Paramount, and that’s what he’s expected to do at 8 p.m. Thursday, when he’ll read some of his poems.

“This is a happy coincidence,” Collins says of the timing. “The performance has been on the books for some time, and the Ransom Center acquisition is much more recent, but we managed to work out a schedule to visit the Ransom at the same time I’m in Austin.”

Collins describes his poetry as “plainspoken.”

“A typical Billy Collins poem starts out in a straightforward way, with simple diction and syntax,” Collins says. “That’s an effort to invite the reader into the poem. Once the reader steps into it, I hope the poem gets a little more complicated and moves into areas of ambiguity and even mystery. … I like to be transported to a mysterious place, not thrust into one.”

Collins’ books include “Pokerface,” “Video Poems,” “The Art of Drowning,” “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” and his most recent, “Aimless Love.” He founded the Mid-Atlantic Review with Michael Shannon in 1975 and is a professor of English at Lehman College, of the City University of New York, and a distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute.

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