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Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetryby Billy Collins
poetry 180: AN INTRODUCTION
A FEW YEARS AGO I FOUND MYSELF ON A CIRCUIT OF readings, traveling around the Midwest from podium to podium. One stop was at an enormous high school south of Chicago. Despite its daunting size—picture a row of lockers receding into infinity—the school holds a “Poetry Day” every year featuring an exuberant range of activities, including poems set to music by students and performed by the high school chorus and a ninety-piece orchestra. As featured poet that year, I found myself caught up in the high spirits of the day, which seemed to be coming directly from the students themselves, rather than being faculty-imposed. After reading to a crowded auditorium, I was approached by a student who presented me with a copy of the school newspaper containing an article she had written about poetry. In that article, I found a memorable summary of the discomfort so many people seem to experience with poetry. “Whenever I read a modern poem,” this teenage girl wrote, “its like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”
Poetry 180 was inspired by the desire to remove poetry far from such scenes of torment. The idea behind this printed collection, which is a version of the Library of Congress “180” website, was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate. The original website, which continues to be up and running strong, www.loc.gov/poetry/180, is part of a national initiative I developed shortly after being appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2001. The program is called “Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools.” In creating it, I had hoped the program would suggest to young people the notion that poetry can be a part of everyday life as well as a subject to be studied in the classroom. On the website, I ask high school teachers and administrators to adopt the program by having a new poem read every day—one for each of the roughly 180 days of the school year—as part of the public announcements. Whether the poems are read over a PA system or at the end of a school assembly, students can hear poetry on a daily basis without feeling any pressure to respond. I wanted teachers to refrain from commenting on the poems or asking students “literary” questions about them. No discussion, no explication, no quiz, no midterm, no seven-page paper—just listen to a poem every morning and off you go to your first class.
I might not have come up with such an ambitious national plan—or any plan at all—were it not for the energetic efforts made by previous laureates to spread the word of poetry far and wide. Prior to the democratizing efforts of Joseph Brodsky, who envisioned poetry being handed out at supermarkets and planted in the bed tables of motel rooms next to the Gideon Bible, the post of poet laureate was centered at the Library of Congress in Washington, specifically in a spacious suite of rooms at the top of the magnificent Jefferson Building, complete with a balcony and, as one visi- tor put it, a “CNN view” of the Capitol. In those days, the position was called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”—admittedly, a mouthful with a businesslike sound. It was the habit of many Consultants to relocate to Washington, go to the office a few days a week, and—I can only imagine—wait for the phone to ring. You never knew when some senator would be curious to know who wrote “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” According to Mary Jarrells memoir, she and Randall took advantage of his tenure in the nations capital by enjoying cultural offerings such as the Budapest string quartet. Maxine Kumin invited Washington-area schoolchildren to the Poetry Room. Robert Penn Warren wisely devoted one of his terms to the writing of All the Kings Men. But by the time I took office, the laureateship had evolved into a seat from which resourceful plans for the national dissemination of poetry were being launched. And so Poetry 180 became my contribution.
High school is the focus of my program because all too often it is the place where poetry goes to die. While poetry offers us the possibility of modulating our pace, adolescence is commonly driven by the wish to accelerate, to get from zero to sixty in a heartbeat or in a speed-shop Honda. And de- spite the sometimes heroic efforts of dedicated teachers, many adolescents find poetry—to use their term of ultimate condemnation—boring. What some students experience when they are made to confront a poem might be summed up in a frustrating syllogism:
I understand English.
This poem is written in English.
I have no idea what this poem is saying.
What is “the misfit witch blocks my quantum path?” a reader might well ask. Whats up with “a waveform leaps in my belly”? Whats a reader to do in the face of such unyielding obtuseness?
But let us hear from the other side of the room. If there is no room in poetry for difficulty, where is difficulty to go? Just as poetry provides a home for ambiguity, it offers difficulty a place to be dramatized if not solved. “Even in our games,” asserts John Ciardi, “we demand difficulty.” Which explains why hockey is played on ice and why chess involves more than two warring queens chasing each other around the board. During the heyday of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane—that Mount Rushmore of modernism—difficulty became a criterion for appraising poetic value. The difficulty of composition was extended to the compass of the readers experience. Opacity became so closely associated with modernist poetry that readers fled in droves into the waiting arms of novelists, where they could relax in the familiar surroundings of social realism. Of course, the conceptual demands some poems make on their reader can provide an essential pleasure, but this is hardly a recommended starting place for readers interested in reclaiming their connection to poetry. Lacking the experience to distinguish between legitimate difficulty and obscurity for its own sake, some readers give up entirely. Randall Jarrell said that poetry was so difficult to write, why should it be difficult to read. Clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment. The willfully obscure poem is a hiding place where the poet can elude the reader and thus make appraisal impossible, irrelevant—a bourgeois intrusion upon the poem. Which is why much of the commentary on obscure poetry produces the same kind of headache as the poems themselves.
Of course, the more difficult the poem, the more de- pendent students are on their teachers. Knotty poems give teachers more to explain; but the classroom emphasis on what a poem means can work effectively to kill the poetry spirit. Too often the hunt for Meaning becomes the only approach; literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to “what the poet is try- ing to say,” a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication. Explication may dominate the teaching of poetry, but there are other ways to increase a readers intimacy with a poem. A reader can write the poem out, just as Keats or Frost did, or learn how to say a poem out loud, or even internalize a poem by memorizing it. The problem is that none of these activities requires the presence of a teacher. Ideally, interpretation should be one of the pleasures poetry offers. Unfortu- nately, too often it overshadows the other pleasures of meter, sound, metaphor, and imaginative travel, to name a few.
POETRY 180 WAS ALSO MEANT TO EXPOSE HIGH SCHOOL students to the new voices in contemporary poetry. Even if teachers try to keep up with the poetry of the day, textbooks and anthologies typically lag behind the times. My rough count of one popular introductory text has dead authors beating out living ones at a ratio of nine to one. And oddly enough, many of the poems that are still presented as examples of “modern” poetry—Eliots “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Williamss “The Red Wheelbarrow”—were written more than seventy-five years ago. With a few exceptions, the poems selected for the Poetry 180 website and this book were chosen with the idea of catching the sounds, rhythms, and attitudes of poetry written much more recently. Some of the poems culled from literary magazines are no more than a year or two old. I ruled out any poem that had become a standard offering in textbooks and anthologies. I wanted also to include voices that were not well known. Quite a few of these poems were written by poets I had not heard of before I started scouting for the poems that would suit the purposes of Poetry 180. Assembling this anthology gave me a chance to further the cause of some of my favorite poems and also to discover poets who were new to me. The more I searched for poems, the more I became convinced that regardless of what other kinds of poems will be written in years to come, clear, reader-conscious poems are the ones that will broaden the audience of poetry beyond the precincts of its practitioners.
ADMITTEDLY, SOME OF THESE POEMS WERE SELECTED TO appeal to the interests of high school students. Mark Halliday and Jim Daniels both have poems about cars. Nick Flynn writes about the suspension of physical laws in cartoons. Edward Hirsch has a poem about basketball, and Louis Jenkins has one on football. There are poems about mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. And poems about teaching and learning. Tom Waymans hilarious and touching “Did I Miss Anything?” will appeal to anyone who has ever missed a class and then had the temerity to ask the teacher that impertinent question. But this anthology is meant for everyone, even if you somehow managed to avoid high school—that crucible where character is formed and where, as one student pointed out, they even make you read The Crucible.
One of the most haunting topics in literary discussion (right up there with the “Death of the Novel”) is the disappearance of the audience for poetry. Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out the lamentable fact that the number of poetry readers in this country is about the same as the number of people who write poetry. Based on my confrontations with students who want to write poetry but have no interest in reading it, I would say the poets might slightly outnumber the readers. Such a ratio should be kept in mind whenever we hear people extolling the phenomenon of a “poetry renaissance” in America. Yes, more poetry books are being published, and there are more contests, prizes, slams, open-mike nights, and MFA programs; but a large part of these activities take place within a closed circuit. In recent years, poetry has gained momentum as a cultural force, but much of its energy is expended tracing the same circle it has always moved in, appealing to the same insider audience.
Poetry need not be read by everyone—lots of intense activities have small audiences—but surely this distressing ratio can be changed so that poetry is enjoyed by people who have no professional interest in becoming poets. Poetry 180 is one of many efforts to change the ratio, to beckon people back to poetry by offering them a variety of poems that might snag their interest. I am convinced that for every nonreader of poetry there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry. If a student hears a poem every day, the odds of he or she encountering the right poem increases dramatically. Ideally, Poetry 180 was aimed at creating a cognitive dissonance in students who “hate poetry” by exposing them to a poem they find themselves loving irresistibly.
THIS COLLECTION IS NOT AN EXACT TRANSCRIPTION OF the poems on the Poetry 180 website. Putting the poems into book form made it possible to include longer poems as well as poems that came to my attention after the website was put up. The website itself has movable parts; it is a kind of poetry jukebox where the songs can be changed and updated to keep the offerings fresh, especially for schools that want to continue to use the program one semester after another. This book, like all printed books, is fixed, but it includes as many different voices as possible to give a sense of the diverse chorus that is singing the songs of American poetry these days.
Unlike a book of prose fiction, which you read straight through following the rabbit of the plot, there are all sorts of ways to read a collection of poems. You can look up poets you are familiar with, you can flip through the pages looking for a title that grabs you, a shape that invites you in. Or you can read the collection cover to cover, forwards or backwards. But with Poetry 180, there is something to be said for starting at the beginning and reading just a poem or two each day. Like pills, for the head and the heart.
FOR MY OWN PART, POETRY 180 HAS BEEN A PLEASURE and a challenge. Finding the first one hundred poems was fairly easy. I just spun my mental Rolodex of contemporary poems that I liked well enough to remember. Locating the remaining eighty was harder, which might say something about the narrow bounds of my taste or the limited store of smart, clear, contemporary poems. I experienced the privilege of any anthologizer of being in control of the selections and thus being able to express through publication the kind of poetry I favor. With its original focus on high school audiences, Poetry 180 has a public service ring to it, but it is also, admittedly, a big bouquet of poems that I happen to like. To borrow Fran Liebowitzs musical aesthetics: good poems are poems I like and bad poems are poems I dont like. Putting that egocentric position aside, welcome to Poetry 180. Flip through the book and pick a poem, any poem. I know every one is an ace, or at least a face card, because I personally rigged the deck.
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