Billy Collins. Where art and entertainment collide. He’s the country’s most celebrated living poet, yet he “doesn’t care that poetry is relatively unpopular.” He figures the people who do love poetry love it intensely, and that’s good.
His poems are accessible, written in plain speech, but he’s not surprised when people say, “It doesn’t seem like poetry.” Poetry it is, though, built on his desire, developed in high school five decades ago, to be a poet. “I was taken with the romance of it, of being aware of the effects of putting words that have never been put together before, of strange language combinations, or unusual comparisons.”
Collins has twice been the U.S. poet laureate, about which he claims, “I love saying that. It’s a great way to start sentences.” We began our conversation with the question “How do you define poetry?” I figured that would set the tone, one way or the other.
Happily, Collins responded immediately, saying “There are lots of cute ways to define poetry,” which Collins, stealing from fellow writers, rattles off. “‘The clear expression of mixed feelings,’ or ‘the dancing of an attitude,’ or ‘meaning that moves.’” With a quicksilver turn, he continues seriously, “There is only one airtight definition that I know of. ‘A poem is an arrangement of lines whose length is determined by some principle other than the width of the page.’ Henry Taylor’s definition, by the way.”
We discussed reasons why most people don’t readily take to poetry. Aimee Mann, a singer-songwriter who first met Collins at the White House, has shared the stage with Collins. She says, “I think like a lot of people, I always thought you had to be a real egghead to read poetry.”
Not that there isn’t plenty of “egghead poetry,” poems that cannot be understood without prior knowledge of specific references. Poems where illusion, metaphor, allegory, imagery, or nonliteral structured language can make the reading of them, for some, seem like work.
Collins, who studied the “difficult” poets in grad school, became attracted to poets of a different practice, who write in “plain English,” saying, “There are dozens of them, really.” He describes his work as “writing about everyday life, in the vernacular, with language that sounds like conversation. I write with a sense of rhythm with the words as music, getting the vowels in the right place. I don’t usually use end rhymes or meter, but use ‘speech sounds,’ as Robert Frost said.”
Collins continues, “My poems tend to appear on the page in one sitting, if the poem is cooperating. Getting the beginning right is key. I’m writing and revising as I go, hearing it without saying it. If I can’t get to the end in one sitting, finding no forward motion, I can lose interest.” Rewrites happen on a different day, thinking about the roll of the sounds, the internal logic. Plain language, but with plenty there within the currents of suggestion. Before publishing, he often reads new poems in public, learning things he can’t figure out on the page.
Collins is “not a crusader,” but he did come up with an ingenious way to share poetry during his time as the poet laureate, which he says “has a rather vague job description.” “Poetry 180” and “180 More” are two anthologies Collins designed to provide a poem a day for high school students, to be read at the end of each day’s morning announcements. Thanks from unintended converts have come from schools “all over the English-speaking world.”
He believes, “Poetry can and should be an important part of our daily lives. Poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race. By just spending a few minutes reading a poem each day, new worlds can be revealed.”
What makes poetry different from other art forms? What makes the idiosyncratic elements of poetry — any kind — appealing? Perhaps because you can read it, reread it, enjoy the solitude, the contemplative atmosphere, the silent rhythm, one’s floating imagination, or the words as they are spaced on the page. Or you can hear it read, sharing the language, poignancy, laughs, or silences with the reader and fellow audience members. In any case, I get the feeling Collins is saying, in the silence or blank space at the end of a poem, in a most friendly way, “Know what I mean?”
Billy Collins reads his poetry at Featherstone Center for the Arts, in partnership with Noepe Center for Literary Arts and Pathways Arts. Sunday, June 9, 6:30 pm, $25, open seating; featherstoneart.org, 508-693-1850.