Billy Collins has grown accustomed to interruptions since he was named poet laureate of the United States last year. Today, he must put aside a new poem he's writing to do a phone interview. But before the conversation even gets started, Collins is interrupted again. This time the culprit is his dog, Jeannine. The collie mix wants to come in from the rain.
"Hang on just a second," Collins says. Jeannine is soaking wet, so Collins towels her off and then leads the dog out of his study. Finally, the poet sits down. He hasn't spent too much time at his home in Somers, N.Y., recently. As America's most visible poet, Collins has flown from state to state, speaking at schools, colleges, and libraries about poetry. From September to December, he took 38 flights. Recently, he returned from a trip to New Zealand, a destination "18 time zones, or five in-flight movies, away."
Collins jokes that the purpose of the poet laureate position is "to put one poet out of commission who seemed to be doing well." In addition to his many speaking engagements, he runs the reading series at the Library of Congress, and he created Poetry 180, a program aimed at high school students.
"All children are natural-born poets," he says, "but by the time they reach adolescence, they lose poetry, or it has been beaten out of them, or worse, they start writing it."
Poetry 180 is intended to counteract this by providing the text of 180 compelling poems, one for each day of the school year, on the Library of Congress website (www.loc.gov/poetry/180/). They are meant to be read aloud, perhaps over the school PA but not analyzed. Collins chose the titles for their "transparency" and their ability to show that poetry "is an event for your ear, that it conveys instant pleasure." He plans to change the selections in Poetry 180 for the next school year, "like updating a jukebox."
But though his influence has expanded, his essential mission has not changed. Collins, a professor of English at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, wants writers to understand the importance of clarity and the need "to refresh the language."
To achieve that, he says, one must maintain a keen awareness of how language is being used. "Your enemy is the cliché, words that have already been strung together," the kind of language found in advertising and the media. When language is not fresh, it's because the writer "is using groups of words, not individual words. Poets must refuse ready-made language."
Collins, who has published seven books of verse, is himself a master at capturing natural speech while avoiding "social conversation." He begins his poems with "something simple, something familiar, and I allow the poem to become more mysterious as it develops. The poem should be taking you somewhere; you should find yourself moved, taken into some wonderful location where the rules of logic have been changed."
That's a lovely statement, but many poets could say the same thing about their work. What makes Collins different? How is he refreshing the language?
Collins isn't sure how to answer that question, but he begins by saying that he focuses on the line. "The main thing that attracted me to poetry was a line or two, an image. I searched poems for little moments, and I would mark an exciting image with a pencil. Communication takes place in a line," he says. "Writing one line after another, there is a sense of rhythm. Everything feels like a unit."
Pressed further, Collins says that what makes his poetry unique "could have to do with the character I've created who is the speaker of most of my poems. This character has a tone of voice, rather than a fictional life. He is a fairly attractive fellow, a greatly improved version of myself."
A novelist invents many characters, Collins explains, but the poet's job is to create one character, one distinctive voice. For Collins, this voice attempts to blend humor and seriousness, "to balance those two realms."
"Humor is important," he says, "because there is so much pretentiousness in poetry. Humor is a deflating device, a protective device, a way of trying to defend the self."
Unfortunately, says Collins, poetry often presents just one of those realms the serious as if humor were separate from both life and literature. "But in actual experience, comedy and tragedy are mixed together they inform each other."
This duality is what Collins tries to capture in his work. "Humor is the guy doing a cannonball off the diving board with his bathing suit around his ankles. And irony the chlorine in the pool is what humor achieves when it is mixed with seriousness."
Collins, like many poets, sees an ongoing poetry renaissance in the United States, but he's concerned that poetry activities still consist mostly of poets talking to other poets. That can be a problem, in part, because professional writers don't always take the call to originality seriously enough. "Poets must put their influences together in ways that are not easily recognized," he warns. "Originality is in fact the ability to assemble influences in stealthy ways."
This is a message Collins wants to keep promoting, and he can continue to do so at the national level. He has, after all, just accepted a second term as poet laureate.
But for now, Collins isn't focused on his next trip to the airport. He's thinking about the poem he was writing, and about his new book, "Nine Horses," which will be published by Random House this fall. He's also probably thinking, after dozens of interviews, that talking about poetry will never be as satisfying as writing it.
Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor. For expanded coverage of poetry see www.csmonitor.com/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.
By Billy Collins
From "The Apple That Astonished Paris"
University of Arkansas Press
Reprinted with permission