Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-'03. He has taught at Lehman College, in the Bronx since 1968, and he is a senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. He's also a golfer. This summer, he wrote to ask for advice about playing golf at Askernish, a restored Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. I put him in touch with Ralph Thompson, the club's chairman, and Collins visited with his fiancee, whose name is Suzannah.
From Collins's report:
Just back from the Western Isles to report a near transcendent golf experience at Askernish. When Ralph initially wrote back to me, he mentioned the upcoming Askernish Open, and after reading that sentence my heart sank with the assumption that I couldn't play. But, as you might guess, his next sentence said he was entering me in the tournament.*
**Suzannah and I took the Oban car ferry (five-plus hours, two of gin rummy) and we drove to our hotel in the dark: the Orasay Inn, on the north end of the island. Next day was spent in churches and cemeteries doing some very unprofessional genealogical work ("Hey, here's another MacIsaac!") but not before a stop at the clubhouse, where Ralph said we could tee off straightaway, if we liked. But we had MacIsaacs to find. Next day, in the Open, I was paired with David Currie, a Toronto guy and an Askernish life member, who holds the golf club cack-handed -- i.e., right one on top. Try that at the range. **
All I can say about the course is that it is pure links, and therefore the purest golf experience I have ever had, never mind my 103, partially the fault of rented, steel-shafted clubs. Glorious weather. And between the eighth and sixteenth greens stood a truck, tailgate down, whose bed was filled with drinks (whisky) and little bite-size salmon things with tiny wedges of lemon on them. I wolfed down about six.*
Here's one of my favorite of Collins's poems. It's the second best poem ever written about golf:
I remember the night I discovered,lying in bed in the dark,that a few imagined holes of golfworked 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 bunkersand hear the night owl in the woods.
Who cared about the scorewhen the club swung with the ease of airand I glided from shot to shotover the mown and rolling ground,alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?
Eighteen small cups punched into thebristling grass,eighteen flags limp on their sticksin the silent, windless dark,
but in the bedroom with its luminous clockand propped-open windows,I got only as far as the seventh holebefore 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.
The best poem ever written about golf was written by me. Well, I did have a co-author -- Emily Dickinson -- and on a percentage basis she wrote more of it than I did. But I did contribute the crucial word:
*Golf is the thing with feathers --**That perches on the soul --**And sings the tune without the words --And never stops -- at all --
**I've heard it in the chillest land --**And on the strangest Sea --**Yet, never, in Extremity,*It asked a crumb -- of Me.
Collins gave a terrific TED talk about poetry in 2012. You can watch it right here:
And you can read a poem he wrote about Askernish on the front page of the club's website.