Better Know A Poet Laureate: Billy Collins
What do people want from poetry? A song to sing, an image to remember, a rallying cry that inspires? Wait, it's okay, I'm not sure either!
One of the jobs of the US Poet Laureate is to advocate for poetry and its appreciation. During his time in the Laureate seat from 2001 - 2003, Billy Collins worked on a project called Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry. The goal was to put together a collection of 180 accessible, thought-provoking poems for high schoolers to read, one per day. The collection and its sequel, 180 More, can be found in the library catalog, as well as linked below.
Beyond those specific collections, Collins enjoys uncommon popularity and success as a poet. His books earn record-setting advances, and his reading appearances are regularly standing room only. I know this because Collins read for a packed audience at the University of South Carolina a few years ago and he was every bit the gentle humorist his poetry led me to believe. While waiting in line for him to sign a book, I wrote a suggested dedication for him to use and he put aside my sticky note while saying, "I'm not going to write that." How many poet laureate rejections can I collect? We shall see!
Describing his exact method or style is difficult, if only because his seems so simple to read. He is a master at starting with one image, linking one idea to the next with little segueways, then ending on a thought that punctuates the entire poem just right. These books are concerned with amused or slanted observations about things and read in what I would call "plain English." His style could be called What You See Is What You Get, and he sometimes writes to the struggle with absorbing poetry. The following are two poems by Collins that address the reading of poetry. He concludes with praise for "a very strong feeling, / a very powerful sense of something." Discovering and sharing those powerful somethings is the invisible art that keeps poetry alive, even if we have yet to define how or why.
Introduction To Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.
What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging I like jigging
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.
Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.
But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.
- Red Hydra Press Broadsides of Billy Collins Poetry
Scroll to the bottom and check out "Flock," a personal favorite
- The Poetry Foundation: Billy Collins
Includes poems from this post as well as an author bio and further selections and readings
- Billy Collins On The Colbert Report
Includes an interview and reading from his book "Aimless Love"