Billy Collins, Poet Laureate extraordinaire will be bringing his talent to Lawrence with a reading at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 19 at the Memorial Chapel. Reading Collin’s poetry is a surprise. Anyone who has taken a high school English course knows that poetry is supposed to be difficult. The reader’s job is to pick apart flowery and obscure language and dissect impenetrable poetic structures in order to find a hidden gem of meaning.
Therefore, it is surprising to read in Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry,” “But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”
In a 2001 interview on PBS, Collins explained his poetic philosophy in plainer terms.
“Often people, when they’re confronted with a poem, it’s like someone who keeps saying ‘what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this?’ And that dulls us to the other pleasures poetry offers.”
This comment begs the question: what pleasures does Collins’ poetry offer?
The most common word used to describe his poetry is “accessible.” Collins, however, weary of the word’s overuse, prefers the term “hospitable.”
His poetry uses simple language and simple structures to convey complex thoughts and emotions, making his poetry easily understandable. He uses everyday language to describe everyday events, such as walking downtown with headphones or driving to the doctor’s office.
Sometimes he addresses the reader directly, as in the poem “Dear Reader.”
Another welcome surprise Collins offers is his sense of humor. Although not difficult to understand, it is subtle; the reader may have to pause before chuckling at his dry poetic wit.
For example, Collins titled one poem “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles.”
In a 2001 PBS interview Collins said, “Humor for me is really a gate of departure. It’s a way of enticing a reader into a poem so that less funny things can take place later. It really is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.”
Collins admits that very few of his poems lack an element of humor. Clearly, he is not a poet of the bleak, brooding variety.
Perhaps for all of these reasons Collins was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 2001, a post he still occupies today.
Once a year, the Librarian of the Library of Congress consults with critics, the current Poet Laureate, and previous Poet Laureates before appointing a poet to the post.
Although there are minimal assigned tasks accompanying the position (in order to give the poet time for creative work), Poet Laureate is not an empty title. Traditionally, the position requires the poet to do some public readings of his or her work and make speeches.
According to the Library of Congress, the goal of the Poet Laureate is “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” The library gives the Poet Laureate a certain amount of creative liberty with how they propose to reach this goal. Upon Collins’ first appointment in 2001, he began a program he called “Poetry 180.”
Collins explains,”The idea is to get a poem read everyday in American high schools as part of the public announcements. I am hand-picking 180 poems, which I think are […] hospitable.”
He added, “The poem will be a feature of daily life and not something that’s just taught. I’m going to discourage teachers from teaching the poem or bringing it into the classroom.”
Billy Collins’ works include:
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
Picnic, Lightning (Pitt Poetry Series)
The Art of Drowning
Questions About Angels
The Apple That Astonished Paris