A Recap of Billy Collins at King’s College

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.

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2 thoughts on “A Recap of Billy Collins at King’s College

  1. Kate McGinnis says:

    I’ve found Billy Collins to be an enigma. I’ve studied under two poets (who I respect equally and who have generally equal credentials) and while one hates Collins, the other adores Collins. The reality is, no, when it comes to the avant garde or forging new territories in poetry, Collins isn’t at all noteworthy, because he doesn’t forge new territories, he’s incredibly simplistic, safe, and boring. However not everyone sees as much potential in avant garde, as in others. Some people want a simple feel-good read that doesn’t require a lot of chewing. It boils down to tastes.

    I will say that generally, in the “now” literary circles, Collins isn’t held in high esteem.

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking, he’s a good reader and I’m glad you had a good experience!

    • Brian Fanelli says:

      Kate,

      I’ve had the same experiences regarding Collins’ work that you’ve had. I’ve had poetry professors that love him and others that don’t like him at all. I’ve also taught with professors that like him a lot and use his work in the classroom. I have taught some of his poems, along with the work of several others, and students also like him. They can relate. I think what Collins has succeeded at doing is making poetry accessible again, and for that, I give him credit.

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