The Bard’s Butter Cut

Chapter and verse on a writer playing with one of his literary heroes

I met Billy on a snow day. Or in “Snow Day,” that is. I was an adjunct professor of English facing a room of freshmen food-marketing majors (the marquee degree at my university), tasked with making them care about poetry for at least two weeks of English 101. 

They were already weary of Shakespeare and Tennyson and Dickinson from high school English, so I dug through our anthology for verses that sounded like sentences they might use, with words they wouldn’t have to look up. I landed on Billy Collins and his “Snow Day,” a short poem about an unknown narrator waking to a coat of fresh snow and listening to the school closings on the radio. 

We read it aloud, and I waited. And the hands went up. They liked it! They understood it—parts of it, anyway. They had opinions and reactions, and some spied subtext in the poem’s seemingly benign observations. The poem empowered them to guess and ponder, and it removed their angst about poetry as an impenetrable grade-wrecker. We sampled more of Collins’ work, and they read closely; sometimes they smiled and laughed, or looked up in shock. I read all the Collins poetry I could find, because he had not only saved English 101 for me, but he had also saved me as a golfing professor.

There aren’t a lot of golfers in academia. The board of trustees might be packed with them, but among the teaching and researching ranks, few of my colleagues have had to cancel class for a mid-am qualifier. I’ve felt the sting—real or imagined—of being labeled a golf writer among more serious scholars. While my peers were off giving papers on Melville and writing pedagogy, I was researching synonyms for fairway and dogleg. But when my reading revealed that the Billy Collins was a dedicated golfer and a lover of the links in the Irish and British Isles, I felt a revolution of relief. My insecurities evaporated, and my professorial standing lifted: If the poet laureate of the United States and “the most popular poet in America” (according to The New York Times, no less) was a golfer, I no longer had to hide. I didn’t have to lie about my students’ grades being late because there was a new golf course in Ireland. I had previously lived as two personas: golfer and academic. Collins helped merge those two people into one grateful, confident instructor who could finally admit that he taught for three reasons: June, July and August.

Billy Collins crossing a street, Winter Park 9
Heroes can, at times, show up where they’re least expected. For the author, his literary idol turned out to be a poet walking through Central Florida.

Collins further became a hero of mine not just because we shared a pastime, but because, as a writer, he seemed to effortlessly accomplish what I labored to achieve every time I sat down at the keyboard. His writing had complexity masked as simplicity; it used humor and the foibles of everyday living to pull readers in, then gut punch them with undeniable insights. His poems read like conversations, like handshakes with a wise friend, and his verses never left out the most essential ingredients: wonder and joy. He wrote for people, not PhDs. I’m no poet, but his economy, confidence and clarity were everything I wanted for my own paragraphs. So when presented with a chance to meet and play golf with him, I was as nervous as an apprentice on his way to meet the mage. 

I circled his block three times. Rather than meet at the golf course, Collins suggested we catch up at his home first, and while I would never say no to an opportunity to see where an icon lived and wrote, it put me on unsteady footing. The golf course was a common ground of comfort, while his home was a pilgrimage for which I felt unprepared. Of course, I arrived early, so I drove through the neighborhoods of Winter Park, Florida, until it seemed a suitable time to pull into the driveway. The Porsche and BMW had me wondering if I was at the right place—no poets I knew had rides like that; no poets I knew received six-figure advances for their books, either—but in a minute Collins was on the front porch, making sure the cat didn’t escape as he opened the door for me. 

A copy of my book A Course Called Scotland was placed carefully on a glass coffee table, which brought a big smile and conjured memories of visiting my grandparents in Scranton, Pennsylvania; their house would be filled with my family’s photographs, until my cousins visited and our faces were swapped out for theirs. But no matter: If my book landed in the Smithsonian someday, it wouldn’t look any better than it did in Billy Collins’ living room.

We had met via email months before, when I requested his permission to reprint in my Scotland book a ditty he had written about Askernish. Askernish is a remote Scottish links visited by a select few golf soul-seekers, so when I found a Collins poem extolling its virtues on the course’s website, I was hit by another revelation: Not only were we both golfers, but we both shared a love of Old Tom’s Askernish, placing us in a rather small golfing clique. Our email exchange further revealed that we loved the Winter Park 9, so it became inevitable that we would one day peg it there together. I just didn’t expect to get to poke around his office first.

Winter Park 9, Train
Modern with a classic feel, smart without being stuffy. After visiting both, the author can confirm that this description applies to both the poet’s home and his course.

Among the papers scattered around his wide desk—I was pleased to find it appropriately disorganized, like I’d caught a master at work amidst piled books and manuscript pages and inky journals—he showed me a faded sepia photograph, no bigger than a driver’s license, of a young boy holding a hickory golf club that reached his chin, big smile and a small cap, with BILLY COLLINS typed on the reverse side. 

Collins grew up in New York City and learned the game from his father. His dad died in 1994 at the age of 93, but he confided to me that “if he were somehow alive today, he would be prouder of me for the courses I’ve played than for any of my achievements in poetry.” A bold assessment, given that he has won just about every award a poet can win, that he has been both a state and national poet laureate and that he was asked to read a poem to a joint session of Congress on the first anniversary of 9/11. But considering that he was off to Augusta National in a few weeks—where he would be staying in the cabin beside the 10th tee, and where he would be asked to visit various club offices and read a poem for the staff, like one of the old bards reciting odes for his supper—what he said about his dad made perfect sense. 

His desk was shadowed by two Art Deco lamps, and he explained that one of them had been with him since the 1960s, a faithful writing companion. The other was an improbable reproduction; he had been asked to record a poetry segment for MasterClass, the online learning platform where one can take courses with Jodie Foster, Spike Lee, Steve Martin, Martin Scorsese, Aaron Sorkin and, now, Billy Collins. They asked him what he would like his studio to look like for the recording. He told them his office seemed like the simplest place, not knowing that they would reproduce it on a sound stage down to the tiniest detail: every painting, pencil and rare lamp. So now he had a matching pair, on either side of the desk. And standing there between them, he was poetry turned cool, a rock star of rhyme and meter.

Billy Collins, Winter Park 9
Modern with a classic feel, smart without being stuffy. After visiting both, the author can confirm that this description applies to both the poet’s home and his course.

His home was cottage Craftsman on the outside and New York artist within, sparely adorned with the sort of furniture you want to be hip enough to not just own, but to know where to even get. He showed me outside to a small backyard pool surrounded by lush gardens, and he seemed a man who knew he had arrived somewhere very special in his life. His readings remain sell-out affairs, and he has read his work in all 50 states. He no longer has to teach; he runs the Winter Park Institute for nearby Rollins College, which essentially entails him inviting New York friends like Paul Simon to come and speak. At age 77, he is engaged to his beautiful fiancée, Suzannah, who was still sleeping somewhere inside.

As I stepped around his backyard oasis, perhaps Collins saw the awe in my eyes as he told me how, not so long ago, a friend in New York had listened to his litany of troubles—divorced, struggling to write, living in tight and temporary quarters—and told him, “You’re one of those guys who eats his dinner over the kitchen sink.” On his walk home, it struck him that indeed he was, and he resolved to no longer be so. He met Suzannah. He moved to Winter Park. And he started playing more golf.

We headed to the Winter Park 9, where I sensed they knew Collins was a somebody, but that it didn’t really matter, and that he preferred it that way. One of the many beautiful things about this muni, aside from its genius Keith Rhebb/Riley Johns routing through the streets of downtown that make it an archetype for American community golf, is that the place lacks any and all airs—a perfect spot to tee it up with a lionized poet who lacks them as well.

We decided to play nine holes for a poem; the loser would have to write one for the winner on the spot. I had played for dinners and hundred-dollar stakes before, but never had I ventured such an anxious wager on the golf course, especially when having to give my opponent seven shots. A napkin poem from Billy Collins would be the crown of my collections, both literary and golf, but the prospect of losing and having to write lines for America’s greatest living poet was pure terror. I quickly went two holes down and tried to remember how many syllables were in a haiku.

Collins played with a soft slice that he attributed to his golfing DNA; lessons be damned, it had been with him since his father taught him the game, and one of the things that fascinated him about golf was how our swings had a certain genetic footprint that we had to accept and overcome. His gentle slider kept him well in play at Winter Park, but he generously missed a couple short ones so that we kissed sisters in the end. Given the stakes, it was a round where I desperately wanted the prize, yet couldn’t have cared less about the tally. I was out golfing with a man I so looked up to—not for his Porsche or his fame or his books, but because he made beautiful things, in volumes. And he was treating me like a friend; rather, he was a friend, sharing dirty jokes and telling me why he still loved golf as much today as ever.

“Golf is the union of the social and the solitary,” he explained. For my friend Billy, it seamlessly blended time with friends, conversations, cocktails—group time—with moments where it was just you, your mind, your ball. As writers, I knew we both craved the solitary and thrived in that setting, but we needed that other part too, to keep us sane. No wonder we played this game that gave us both. We weren’t the weird ones. The weird ones were those who somehow got by without golf. 

I resisted asking Billy about golf’s role in his writing, and its influence on his golf—how the two worked together seemed the obvious question I’d been asked a dozen times before. We weren’t out here writing; we were trying to get our balls to hold on Winter Park’s cascading greens. As big a part as golf played in Billy’s life, he had published only one poem about the game, and like all of Billy’s poems, it reminded me of something essential that I had overlooked, something undeniable that got lost in the shuffle of here to there, of par and bogey. Golf had given me a lot of things, but better than most of them, on many a sleepless night, it had given me rest. 

Winter Park 9 Clubhouse

Night Golf

I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,
that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.
How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.
Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?
Eighteen small cups punched into the
bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,
but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away—
the difficult seventh, “The Tester” they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

—Billy Collins