Billy Collins’ “Poetry 180” asks us to give poetry another chance

If you’ve ever tried to read a poem and given up in confusion, or if the mere thought of poetry leaves you intimidated or disinterested, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wants to help. His “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” is an anthology of contemporary poems by various poets, compiled with the goal of addressing that very reality. 

I first encountered this book in my senior year of high school, when my English teacher would occasionally select a poem from it to read at the beginning of class. A few of these poems, like Naomi Lazard’s “Ordinance on Arrival” have continued to stick in my mind as favorites since then. Until this winter break, however, I had never taken the time to sit down with Poetry 180 for myself and get a sense for all that it has to offer. 

In his introduction, Collins explains his objectives behind compiling the anthology. His target audience is high school students, and while he acknowledges that there are many ways to read the poetry collection, his proposed implementation is that for each day of the school year, one of the poems will be read aloud, offered to the students “without […] pressure to respond.” He describes Poetry 180 as a “selection of short, clear, contemporary poems” that are enjoyable and easy to understand, and he mentions picking some poems because their topics would be interesting or relatable to teenagers, like cars, sports and school. 

Something I found particularly captivating about “Poetry 180” was its inclusion of multiple poems about poetry, which could serve as a sort of mission statement for the collection. By selecting several such poems by different writers, Collins provides a variety of perspectives on what poems can be and do, and about the experience of writing them and of engaging with readers and a community through poetry.  

Collins begins the collection by giving himself the first word, with a poem fittingly titled “Introduction to Poetry.” In it, Collins expresses how he hopes readers will engage with poetry and notes the discrepancies between his hopes and the realities of how it is often read and taught in schools. In part of the poem, he notes the common but misguided desire to find a solution or correct interpretation to a poem rather than allowing for ambiguity and viewing the poem as an opportunity for human connection: 

“I want them to waterski / Across the surface of a poem / Waving at the author’s name on the shore. / But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope / And torture a confession out of it. / […] / To find out what it really means.” 

In “Poetry Reading at West Point,” William Matthews recounts an interaction between himself and a cadet at the military academy, in which the cadet asks “sir […] why do your poems give / me a headache when I try / to understand them? […] Do you want that?” to which Matthews replies “I try to write as well as I can / what it feels like to be human […] I try to say what I don’t know / how to say, but of course I can’t / get much of it down at all. […] I don’t want my poems to be hard, / unless the truth is, if there is / a truth” 

Matthews expresses an aim for the poetry he writes to convey complex ideas about existence and about his experiences that wouldn’t be possible in other forms of writing, while he still empathetically recognizes the communicational limits of poetry. 

For the final poem of the collection, Collins chose Heather McHugh’s “What he thought.” In it, McHugh tells of meeting with a group of other poets in Italy and learning about Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who was publicly executed in Rome in 1600 for challenging the Catholic church’s authority: 

“The day they brought him / forth to die, they feared he might / incite the crowd (the man was famous / for his eloquence). And so his captors / placed upon his face / an iron mask, in which he could not speak. That’s / how they burned him, that is how / he died: without a word, in front of everyone / […] / poetry is what / he thought, but did not say.” 

In her poem, McHugh compares poetry to a specific instance of rebellion. I interpreted this as demonstrating a belief that poetry can be a force for social change by facilitating the expression of ideas that resist oppression or question the status quo. I found this to be a powerful ending to the collection because of its message regarding the potential role poetry can play in society.  

“Poetry 180” encompasses a broad array of poems, from the fanciful (C.S. Lewis’ “The Late Passenger), to the humorous (David Clewell’s “Vegetarian Physics”), to the sentimental and reflective (Stephen Dobyns’ “Loud Music”), capturing many real and imaginary moments and stories.  

I admit that many of these poems escaped my memory shortly after reading them, but I know that a handful of them will stay with me much longer, and I think that’s really the point; in trying to account for each of the many different people who encounter this book, Collins tasked himself not with creating an anthology that would appeal to everyone in its entirety, but one in which each person could find something they could connect to. For me, at least, he succeeded.