Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space. Random House Audio, 2005; $19.95
The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins. Random House, 2005; $22.95; 112 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space: In this exclusive audio publishing event, Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, shares an evening of his poetry in a benefit reading. Often compared to Robert Frost, his poetry has been embraced by people of all ages and backgrounds, and his readings are most often standing room only. Performed by the author at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City, Billy Collins reads 24 of his poems, including "Dharma" -- a spiritual yet humbling ode to man's best friend; "The Lanyard" -- an amusing recollection about the popular, if not pointless, summer-camp pastime; and "Consolation" -- a tongue-in-cheek reflection of a cancelled European trip, and the benefits of staying home instead. In addition to the poetry readings, Collins also spends some time in a brief question-and-answer session where he reflects on what makes good poetry, his own process of reaching his audiences as a poet, the success of his Poetry 180 programs in schools nationwide, and an amusing sidebar on his memories growing up as an only child. At times pensive and sardonic, amusing and subtly sarcastic, Billy Collins Live celebrates both the simple and the complex in a language that appeals to all.
The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems: Playfulness, spare elegance, and wit epitomize the poetry of Billy Collins. With his distinct voice and accessible language, America's two-term Poet Laureate has opened the door to poetry for countless people for whom it might otherwise remain closed.
Like the present book's title, Collins's poems are filled with mischief, humor, and irony -- "Poetry speaks to all people, it is said, but here I would like to address / only those in my own time zone" -- but also with quiet observation, intense wonder, and a reverence for the every day -- "The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows. / They are at their windows in every section of the tangerine of earth -- the Chinese poets looking up at the moon, / the American poets gazing out / at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise."
Through simple language, Collins shows that good poetry doesn't have to be obscure or incomprehensible, qualities that are perhaps the real trouble with most "serious" poetry -- "By now, it should go without saying / that what the oven is to the baker / and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner / so the window is to the poet."
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Collins's...light touch, his self-deprecating pathos, and his unerring sense of his audience (nothing too difficult, but nothing too lowbrow) explain much of his popularity and remain evident in this eighth collection.... The dominant note, however, is a gentle sadness, accomplished with care and skill.
Booklist : Collins is one of the most popular and most disarming of poets. He draws you close with his swinging lines, twirling metaphors, homey imagery, and coy self-deprecation. But he is as likely to be hiding a cudgel behind his back as a bouquet of flowers.... Skeptical of love and scornful of pretension, Collins is breathtaking in his appreciation of the earth's beauty and the precious daily routines that define life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Billy Collins is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Nine Horses, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Questions About Angels, The Art Of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. A distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of New York State.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I said to Billy Collins, about his poem "Revenant," that when he read it, the audience laughed. "Laughed about a poem about a dead dog.""Well, if you heard me read it..." Mr. Collins was speaking from his home in Northern Westchester County.
"I did hear you read it."
"That's right, but they were laughing like crying." Mr. Collins laughed. "Insensitive New Yorkers."
"How long does it take you to drive to work?" (Mr. Collins for many years taught in the Bronx at Lehman College.)
"Well, if I did work, it would take about 50 minutes. But I stopped teaching."
"Do you think people can be taught to write poetry?"
"You can't really teach them. You can encourage them; you can point out a few craft things, just as a good editor would. You can encourage them to read; you can try to custom-design a reading list for them so that they will read the right poets -- part of being a good teacher of writing is second-guessing what writers would be good for a student to read. You try to find a writer that will make the student jealous and envious enough to start imitating that writer.
"There are two things that you can't teach -- one is rhythm. Rhythm is impossible to teach. It's like dancing. Either you have it or you don't have it. Some people have a good sense of verbal rhythm and other people are tone deaf. The other thing you can't teach is metaphor.
"You can't teach anyone to make interesting connections between things and, in fact, it's even more basic than that. You can't get anyone interested in doing that if they're not interested in doing that."
"'In a true piece of wit, all things must be, /Yet all things there agree,'" I quoted from Abraham Cowley's "Ode to Wit," lines more familiar through their use by Eliot in "Andrew Marvell."
"More students should read that line. If they don't have a sense of verbal rhythm and they have no interest in making metaphorical connections, then they probably should get out of the poetry game. So that's what can and can't be taught."
"So many people who never read want to write."
"It's extraordinary. It's absolutely extraordinary. It's part of this self-expression craze that comes with this emphasis on the self and self-esteem. Wilfred Sheed is one of my favorite writers; he has a great line about self-esteem. He says, 'When I was a boy we had another name for low self-esteem, it was called humility.' Humility was a virtue not a defect.
"The title poem of this book of mine, The Trouble with Poetry, says in a half-facetious way that the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry. It's true that there's much too much of it. The government should pay poets not to write, like they pay farmers not to grow corn or soybeans. That would be a program that I would endorse."
"People don't think that any preparation is necessary for writing poetry."
"It's a hobby," Mr. Collins said, laughing. "Well, no one would think of just picking up an oboe and trying to play it."
"Not a single reed. Maybe a clarinet."
"Even a stand-up bass. But they will pick up a Bic pen and a piece of paper and start trying to commit an act of literature without any preparation whatsoever."
"I wonder why that is. Maybe it's that we all use words."
"We have a common language, yes, and I think it's a romantic idea. Everyone has a story to tell and people say 'You should write a book, you've got a good story there.' Poetry has feelings, so you might as well sit down and write them out."
"But poetry isn't 'feelings'," I protested.
"Oscar Wilde said that 'All bad poetry is based on genuine feeling.' He didn't mean that all poems that have genuine feeling are bad, but that if you see a bad poem you can be pretty sure that the author meant it. There's a connection between sincerity and badness."
"Not unlike the difference between compassion and sentimentality."
"That's good. And it's the difference between being emotional and concentrating on the work you have to do verbally to create a good poem. It's not necessary to be emotional when you write. In fact, it's the worst condition to be in. You should be clearheaded and ready to concentrate on the language.
"As you're composing you want to be smart in that you're skillful, you know the language, you know connotations, you've spent your time in the dictionary. But you're also ignorant of where the poem is going.
"You're going into the unknown equipped. It's a combination or mix of knowledge and ignorance that actually makes the experience exciting.
"It is an adventure. The writing will carry you to a destination that was unforeseen, and the only way to access that destination is through this poem or this piece of writing, which adds some sense of adventure to it."
I said, "You have so many windows in your poems."
"Someone described me once as an indoor nature poet. Fifteen years ago my wife and I bought this house we live in. It's an old 1860s farmhouse in the semi-country. At that point my poems became very domestic. Prior to that we rented; it was like we were born to rent.
"There are lots of poems about the house, about the garden, about the windows. I loved this house, and I still do. I found this very happy domestic space to write in. I let that into the writing. I make that part of the subject of the writing. But you're right about the windows -- what daffodils are to Wordsworth, windows are to me."
"Your salt and pepper shakers on the table are often featured in a poem."
From "You, Reader":
and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.
I wondered it they had become friends
After all these years
"They do come up in a few poems."
"Who do you read?"
"I've been putting these anthologies together — Poetry 180 and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. So my poetry reading has been scattering, because I've been beating the bushes for poems in every magazine I can get my hands on. I've got this big anthology of Chinese literature and poetry. That's something I always dip into. I often will flip open to a page as I'm writing, just to be reminded of lessons in clarity and simplicity and simple vocabulary."
I mentioned that, while writing, I will open a volume of James Schuyler or Wallace Stevens or an anthology, whatever is nearby, because I want a sense of someone with whom to be — "company."
Mr. Collins seemed to understand. "It is like having a companion with you. Someone said that writing is a lonely or isolated procedure, but that you're always in the company of all these other writers that you've absorbed.
"I like Charles Simic's poetry a lot, but I don't turn to it the way I used to. I used to read a few poems of Simic before I wrote. I didn't want to write like him, or I didn't think I could. But he had a certain imaginative sense of freedom and a fairly simple vocabulary and a wiggy imagination that would put me in a good mood to write."
"There is something similar between your poems and Simic's: even when you guys are funny, there's something poignant about your poems."
Mr. Collins did not disagree. He went on. "I had an eye-opening experience. When people ask me about the difference between reading a poem in a room and going to an auditorium and hearing somebody recite it, the experience that always comes to mind is that of the first time I heard Simic read. I'd been reading his books for years and years. He had a sense of a dark humor, but it was more a very gothic mood in these Eastern European cities with store windows and street lamps and mannequins."
"And people hanging from lampposts."
"Yes. All that eerie stuff and butchers' aprons, but when I heard him read, he was funny. I could tell by the way his mouth was crooked that he was grinning at all this stuff, and it made me have a whole new look at his work."
"Like 'The Revenant,' your dog poem. The heartbreak is at work too."
"I sit down to write. I don't consciously do it, but I'm trying to use humor to get at something serious, and I'm trying to balance those two moods so that the result might even be a gentle confusion, an emotional confusion, where sometimes in readings the audience is laughing at a few poems, and then another poem comes up that's not funny, and they're still laughing. Then they catch themselves. I like to ride that little line between the two -- the tragedy and comedy masks."
"What dead poets do you read?"
"Coleridge, a lot, and John Clare. He's come back tremendously in the past ten years or so. I have a whole shelf of John Clare. A friend of mine is a rare-book dealer, and anything that comes in with John Clare she saves for me. I've got an obsession with him. He's a wonderful counter of things, of eggs; he's a little tabulator. I like that about him."
"Do you read Dick Hugo?"
"Yes, I love Dick Hugo. I love those poems on Skye. I was on Skye and I had his book with me. I actually haven't read Hugo in a few years; you're going to inspire me to take him down tonight. I just yesterday went to a James Wright evening because his widow and Robert Bly put together a small selected poems that you can put in your pocket or your knapsack. And then Wright's letters just came out. I read Wright."
"What has it been like to come, as you have, from such obscurity as a poet to one of the most-read poets in the country?"
"It's an entirely positive experience. I don't think I ever suffered in obscurity, because I had low hopes as a poet. I think probably most poets do. One of my colleagues summed it up when she introduced me at a reading, some years ago, and we'd been teaching together forever in the City University, and she said that when she met me I was a professor who happened to be a professor, and I'd become a poet who happens to be a professor.
"Those two roles did shift. There's a shift of dominance from one role to the other. I don't know. It's very odd. I taught in obscurity but everyone teaches in obscurity. I taught for over 30 years at the four-year college in the Bronx.
"Just after I became poet laureate, this journalist, this sweet guy from the Washington Post, said he wanted to come up to the Bronx and go to my class and look around. I told him, 'Great, but the last half an hour of the class, you have to teach.' I wanted him to get up and talk about how you become a journalist. So that was our deal.
"He got to the college early and he was walking around the campus by himself, and as a journalist he would stop students and ask about me, and no one had ever heard of me. My students didn't know who I was, which was a relief in a way. I mean some of the graduate students would catch on. But I would enter a regular Introduction to Literature or English 101 classroom and no one would know who I was.
"I didn't think that was something that I was suffering. I'm 64 now, believe it or not. I don't, anyway. But everything that's happened to me in poetry happened in, maybe the last ten years.
"Garrison Keillor has been very good. He's read poems of mine on the Writer's Almanac, a dozen or so. He's had me on Prairie Home Companion."
"He reads beautifully," I said.
"I'm so glad you said that. Some people don't think he does. I've heard him read my poems and I think he reads better than I do. I've seen him do cold readings and he knows just where the accents are. He's got an amazing sense of rhythm and pitch and tone; his reading is an instrumental performance."
"His ear," I suggested, "has been trained by hymnody."
"That's true. I asked someone I met, a friend of his, and this friend said they'd go to Keillor's house for dinner. I said, 'What's it like?' The friend said 'People bring covered dishes, and after dinner we sing hymns.' It's the real thing. Just what you'd expect."
"What do you do all day?"
"I'm busy. There's a lot of time spent managing what has become a cottage industry, which is me. There is this strangulation of e-mail and letters, secretarial stuff. I have an assistant, but she only comes in every few weeks. If I get letters from people I don't know, I put them in a box, and she and I go through that. It's easier to do it myself. You know so much of it would be hard to explain."
"I like the poem ["The Trouble with Poetry"] where flame shows up at the end of your pencil."
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
"I like that too. A little flame. I'm reading a lot of Hindu stories lately. There's a lot of odd things. For instance, if you look into the mouth of some of these gods, you see all these worlds being born and destroyed, and it's amazing."
"Did your parents read to you?"
"My mother did."
"Is she still alive?"
"No, if she were alive, she'd be 105."
"Did she love you?"
"She loved me a great deal, yeah. My parents, I think they practiced preventive psychiatry. They had me very late. They were 39 years old. Almost 40. Both born in 1901. My father died in '94 and my mother died in '97. So they both lived well into their 90s, and I had 50 years of being an only child."
"So many writers are only children."
"It does give you time to yourself. You make up all of these worlds. Bachelard talks about children going off into these hiding places, in closets and behind the sofa, and behind hedges and in those places their imagination is fired up."
"Don't you fall to your knees in admiration for Bachelard's books?"
"Yes. His The Poetics of Space is a real turning point. I put that on all lists of important books."
"What else do you put on that list?"
"Lolita. Every few years I read that. Actually, I used to read it more, but when I go on these driving tours, lately I've been listening to the Jeremy Irons audio book of Lolita. My list would be an eccentric list. I would put a book of 17th-century devotional poetry on there. I might put Emerson's essays. I find him comforting. I'd put Whitman and Frost, and I'd probably put some eccentric people like Nathanael West in there. I'd take a big satchel full of Chinese poetry."
"Do you think that poets who haven't done well financially are jealous of poets who do well?"
"I think it depends on their temperament. I think jealousy is a good thing if you're jealous of the work. If you're jealous of someone's success, I'd say that's a sin."
"Certainly it's a venial sin."
"Yeah, it's a venial sin and we all commit it, but in a way it's an extra pleasure for me, probably. Frankly, I didn't feel like I was 'shut out' or obscure. But I do remember, one evening, I'd been teaching in the City University in the Bronx and looking around for a piece of chalk for 20 years or so. I went out to a dinner with Gerry Stern and C.K. Williams and maybe Galway Kinnell, I forget -- I just somehow got thrown into this thing. One of them had a big cigar. They were talking about their schedules at Princeton and other places and how they had taught one course every other semester, and I just -- I don't know. So I was happy at my age to burst onto the scene. Apparently, I've probably sold more books than poets who are alive now."
"You are famous."
"Sometimes, someone will look at you at a party or on the street, and you'll think they're going to recognize you, and all of a sudden -- they don't."
"Do the big guys in poetry treat you differently now?"
"I don't hang around with poets. I was never part of a poetry circle. I never took a workshop. The reason I was attracted to poetry was it was this solo activity. My wife is a very good reader and editor, and I show my poems to her, but I've never shown a poem to another poet. You look at books of poetry and the acknowledgements -- 'I want to thank the following people who helped me with the manuscript.' There's a list of 12 other poets. I think it's absurd. It's become a quilting bee.
"My first editor was Miller Williams, who's about the sweetest guy in the world. I remember the phone call with him when he said he was going to take my book, and he said some editing was involved. I thought he was going to rip these poems apart. I said, 'Give me an example.' He said, 'There's a line in this poem where you say, "I can see him so clearly."' He said, 'I don't think you need that intensifier "so."' Then I realized this guy had read these poems."
I laughed and said, "I would edit that down to 'I can see him.'"
"Well, I was a younger poet. You asked me very early on about teaching. Revision should be taking out 90 percent. But often in younger poets revision is adding, and that usually ends up being a mess."
"To take out?"
"Yes. Because then you can see more clearly what you have. Williams Matthews said about revision, 'Revision is not cleaning up after the party, revision is the party.'"
On the East Coast the time was six o'clock. We said our goodbyes. "Eat a good dinner," I said, "and tell the salt and pepper shakers 'Hello' for me."
"I will. I will tell them, 'Hello.'"