Billy Collins on the Mind

I have Billy Collins on the mind today, and I admit this isn’t a typical thing. I haven’t taught his work in at least five years, since I last taught Intro to Poetry and used his collection Sailing Around the Room as a means to show students that poetry can indeed be accessible, even funny. I have Billy Collins on my mind, though, because of an interview I heard yesterday that he did with Diane Rehm of NPR. He was there to discuss his new book, The Rain in Portugal. For a moment, I almost shrugged and shut off the interview, but then I pondered why I didn’t want to listen to him. He is, after all, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and someone whose work often made me laugh in the past. Yet, as one of the callers noted, there has long been a backlash against Collins’ work. For some, his work isn’t academic enough. For others, his poetry doesn’t follow any conventional forms (which certainly isn’t true). And yet, he, along with Mary Oliver, who also faces similar criticism, are probably the two most well-known living American poets in existence, other than maybe W.S. Merwi or Sharon Olds. How many other poets even get an interview on one of NPR’s most well known programs?

I’m glad I kept the interview on because there are several points Collins made about poetry that could be seen as a reflection of his own work. He noted that when he gave a reading in a rural community years ago, one of the attendees called his work “prose.” But as Collins noted, anyone who has been paying attention to poetry since Modernism in the early 20th Century will know that poetry moved away from fixed forms about 100 years ago. If  we want to be really picky, we can go back to Whitman, a few decades before Modernism. The attendee’s comment, however, speaks to the fact that many American don’t pay that much attention to modern poetry and therefore believe it should operate in fixed forms and employ tight meters and end rhymes. Even the title of Collins new book challenges that notion. It isn’t titled the Rain in Spain, but rather, the Rain in Portugal, challenging expectations of what poetry should be. Collins probably has the biggest audience of readers than any current living American poet. I am certain, in fact, that his new book, published by Random House, one of the largest existing publishing houses, will earn him even more readers. I’m sure, too, that when some of them open the book, they may be surprised how Collins is able to write about ordinary things (which also became more accepted under the guise of Modernism nearly), and that he rarely writes formalist verse.

There is something to be said, too, for the fact that Collins work is SO accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have punch or that he’s not capable of writing about serious subjects, but Collins is a far cry from John Ashbery or any of the other New York School poets that are still all the rage in a number of well-known lit mags. (When is this imitation going to end?) I found myself really agreeing with Collins on one point during the interview. He doesn’t like poems that start with the obscure. For him, that violates the trust of the reader. He stated that it’s okay for a poem to eventually become difficult and obscure, but only after the reader’s trust has been earned. That’s something to ponder.

Billy Collins may be a celebrity in poetry, but widening the audience for the genre is a good thing. I think we should be a little easier on Collins and at least be happy that someone with such a large profile is out here as  a poetry advocate.




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.

Billy Collins at King’s College

I’ve had notice of this for a few weeks now, but I forgot to post this news on my blog. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will be at King’s College tomorrow (Oct. 15) for a reading. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and will be held at the William G. McGowan School of Business, located at the corner of W. Union and N. River Streets. The best news is that this event is free and open to the public.

Collins is the receipent of numerous awards and author of several collections of poetry, including Sailing Around the Room, Picnic Lightening, and many others.