Poet Laureate promotes 'events for the ear'
OUR BIANNUAL LOOK at POETRY bOOKs
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."