King’s College hosted former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins in a packed auditorium Monday night. Throughout his reading and the brief Q and A/lecture session that followed, I regretted leaving my notebook and a pen at home. He offered the usual humor associated with his readings and work, but also several nuggets of wisdom, especially for writers, teachers, and students.
I especially liked some his writing tips. He said a poem should “Begin in Kansas and end in Oz,” and he dislikes poems that suddenly begin in Oz without any explanation of how the poet suddenly arrived there. His advice reminded me of Frost’s quote that a poem should “begin in delight and end in wisdom.” Collins further explained his writing process and said that he sometimes doesn’t know where a poem will go, but he’ll continue writing and see where it leads. Sometimes this takes 20 minutes, or sometimes it takes 4 hours, he said, but when it’s done, he has an experience to share with a reader.
He also offered some suggestions as to teaching poetry. Instead of immediately dissecting a poem’s rhythm or trying to unlock its theme, he suggested that teachers ask students how a poem got to its eventual conclusion, how did the poet get us to the last line. In a way, posing that type of question causes students to look more closely at the techniques used to make the language or imagery fresh and interesting.
As for the reading portion of the event, Collins read poems from most of his nine collections, as well as a few new poems. He read some of his most famous works, such as “Questions About Angels” and “NightClub,’ as well as an assortment of other work, frequently cracking jokes before or after he started a poem. Love him or hate him, Billy Collins has had a long, incredibly successful career by injecting humor into his work, using colloquial language, and making his work accessible.