Imagine a concert hall filled (sold out, twenty-seven hundred seats) by people who paid upwards of twenty-four dollars each to listen to a man read poetry. Not religious poetry or poetry with a political agenda—just poetry. Twenty-seven hundred attendees in a modest American city paying to hear poetry for its own sake; to laugh and to think and to be entertained. Such was the case last week when Billy Collins visited to take part in the Portland Arts & Lectures series.
Reader-friendly, hospitable, congenial, welcoming... These are some of the words often used to describe Collins's work. Such attributes surely help explain his popular following. Among other vaguely heretical beliefs, America's former Poet Laureate insists that a poem should give pleasure on its first reading. Still, it's easy (and patently unfair) to make too much of how accessible Billy Collins's artful verse can be when in fact his seductive, hilarious, surprising, and expansive work appeals to the literary establishment, as well.
"Billy Collins writes lovely poems," John Updike raves, "lovely in a way almost nobody's since Roethke's are. Limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides."
Collins admits, "My poetry is suburban, it's domestic, it's middle class, and it's sort of unashamedly that." His subjects are familiar: the mysterious notes one finds in the margins of used books, lingerie catalogues, houseplants, nursery rhyme characters, music; in Billy Collins's imaginative universe, we will share nothing so unequivocally with our distant descendants as an impatience for wet dogs. In his poems, we're constantly recognizing bits and pieces of our lives, uncanny insights gleaned from passing thoughts and articulated with luminous compassion.
Dave: It's been fun the last few weeks reading your poems, particularly jumping around from book to book, which isn't always possible when I'm reading journalism or novels.
Billy Collins: I don't think anybody reads a book of poetry front to back. Editors and reviewers, only. I don't think anybody else does.
When you put a book together and arrange it, there's a lot of anxiety and turmoil about what order the poems should be in. I find this, teaching MFA students: they're all concerned about the order. It doesn't make any difference whatsoever. It's a total vanity because it's not the way people read. I always tell them there are two ways to organize a manuscript. First is preparing the manuscript to send to an editor. In that case, you totally front-load it—take your fifteen best poems and put them right up front. Then if the manuscript gets accepted, the poet can say to the editor, "By the way, I thought of a different organization," and you can mess around and orchestrate and try to make some symphonic looking book.
Dave: But I noticed in Sailing Alone Around the Room—and this is a collection, so these aren't even poems that originally appeared together—there are interesting progressions. For example, there's "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," then "Snow," then "Japan" comes next. First the outside snow scene; then the falling snow as it appears from inside the speaker's home, set to different types of music; and finally a meditation on a poem whose meaning changes every time it's spoken, which hints at similar questions of art and context.
Collins: Well, you're performing literary criticism now. I mean, that's not something that would ever occur to me.
Dave: But someone made a conscious decision to put the poems in that order, right?
Collins: I did, but I usually don't arrange them so logically.
I have a rather intuitive way of putting a book together. What I do is, I find the biggest room in the house and I put all the poems out on the floor, in any kind of order. Then I walk around and, almost as if feeling your way through a Ouija board, I try to sense Maybe this poem wants to be over there with that poem... They start falling into groupings. But there wouldn't be groupings with Oriental influence, death, family? I'm not sure what they have in common, but I kind of intuit that they enjoy the company of each other.
Dave: "Japan" imagines a haiku whose meaning changes each time a man recites it.
Collins: It turns into an erotic poem in the darkness.
I need these simple structures to build on. A lot of my poems either have historical sequences or other kinds of chronological grids where I'm locating myself in time. I like to feel oriented, and I like to orient the reader at the beginning of a poem. Where we are and when we are, those are two basic pieces of information.
If you went through my poems, you would see in the beginning of them there are often time-space coordinates in one way or another. We start out with some kind of orientation. One way to mark the progress of the poem is that we leave these known coordinates and move off into some terra incognita, a place that is attracting our desire to get disoriented, to get lost.
Dave: "Bar Time" is like that. It starts off with a well-known concept. Anyone who's ever spent too much time in bars knows about bar time.
Collins: It's common knowledge.
Dave: But the poem takes that common knowledge through a series of logical steps and winds up in a fairly surreal place. What's interesting is the very logical progress into fantasy.
Collins: I think that's true. There's a lot of stepping logically, but the progress is usually toward something that is beyond my sense of logic.
My poems tend to have rhetorical structures; what I mean by that is they tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There tends to be an opening, as if you were reading the opening chapter of a novel. They sound like I'm initiating something, or I'm making a move. By the end of the poem, I want to feel disoriented and unsure of where I am. I want to feel a little dazed or surprised, as if I've found a way to slip into some other dimension or just slip from the binds of logic into some imaginatively more free area.
Dave: Does that progress reflect the process of writing?
Collins: Yes. I think I need handholds as I go. It's like laying your own railroad tracks in front of you in order to go forward.
I'm also very conscious of guiding the reader through the poem. I feel like I'm giving the reader a tour of a house that I'm in the process of constructing. I feel kind of Virgillian, if that's not too pretentious a word, in that I'm leading the reader somewhere. Not to a many-circled hell, but to some much more modest place.
Dave: Often you address the reader directly. The first poem in Nine Horses is called "Night Letter to the Reader." There's a congeniality in the tone and the style that's somewhat unusual.
Collins: Are you saying I'm the Miss Congeniality of poetry?
Dave: I guess I'm saying that it might be worth entering yourself in the competition if you're so inclined.
Collins: Well, that's a good word for it. Reader-friendly, hospitable, congenial, welcoming?
Someone wrote an article in the Hudson Review, I think—his name escapes me, but he was talking about poetic manners as another way to describe these extremes of highly accessible poetry and very difficult, demanding poetry. His feeling was that in a lot of cases the poetry that seemed to be making serious conceptual, cerebral, and linguistic demands on the reader was in fact nothing more than a display of bad manners, that in fact the reader was not being paid much attention to. He kept up this kind of Emily Post metaphor and talked about various kinds of poetic rudeness. I assented to all that he was saying.
I feel that I'm trying to be well mannered, at least in the beginning of the poem. I was talking about these coordinates, knowing where you are and when you are: it's Wednesday and I'm looking out at this lawn, or something common like that. I like the poem to get a little ahead of me and a little ahead of the reader, but I'm incapable of engineering any kind of poetic travel to some unknown or interesting place if I don't have a starting place. That's why I always tend to begin a poem with something fairly clear or a piece of common knowledge, like "Bar Time" or the song "Three Blind Mice," something we all know, some little common ground that becomes the grounding wire.
Dave: What's most interesting to you about poetry?
Collins: I think what's interesting to me is not so much movements or the state of American poetry or post-postmodernism, but actual poems and how they work, how they maneuver. That's my fascination, I think: how a poem gets from one place to another.
When I teach poetry, instead of asking What does a poem mean? I try to substitute the question of How does a poem operate? or How does it get from one place to another? We look at poems as a series of pivots or shifts or maneuvers, slipstreaming one idea into another, the way a poem is groping toward its own destination.
The reason I'm saying this, I guess, is that this is what preoccupies me in the process of composition. That's basically what poetry is to a poet, I think: the act of composition. It's not the act of literary criticism or the act of figuring out where your poetry belongs in some broader context.
In composition, I'm trying to do a number of things. I'm trying to write good lines. I do think a poem is a series of lines. You'll probably find a lot of weak lines in these books, but I try not to go forward until I have what I think is a line.
We used to measure lines metrically, so a line would simply be ba-ding, ba-ding, ba-ding, ba-ding. That would be a tetrameter line. Once you turn off that iambic metronome, you have an open-ended question: What's a line, if it isn't four or five beats? There's something that makes up a good line. I'm not sure what it is, but maybe you could say that each line is doing its job; it's making its little contribution, it's not slacking off. In composition, I guess it goes without saying but I'm working one line at a time.
The other thing that's going on is, I'm trying to see if this poem has a destination that I have been put on Earth to discover. I'm like the first person to go on this little journey. Whether the poem is going to find some branch to land on is a driving curiosity. Some poems don't go anywhere, and I just get rid of them.
Dave: Do you abandon many poems?
Collins: Quite a few. There are quite a few false starts. I used to try to force them, and they just got worse and worse, like a painter that tries to fix a painting in the wrong way and paints too much until it all turns to mud.
I need a clean line that I'm following. If I find a clean line from the beginning of the poem, this line of energy, this spinal direction, and I sense that the poem starts to go forward down this line of energy? But if there's any blockage, or if it turns into a backwater where the energy isn't working and you have to go back and rethink it, basically at that point I just give it up.
I think I've written enough so that I can sense at the beginning of the poem its potential; I can feel this energy moving forward and I'm trying to stay ahead of it, but I believe the waste basket is a writer's best friend.
That's one of the troubles with so many writing programs today: they're all based on revision. Someone said, "You can't teach someone to write, but you can teach them to rewrite"—or at least you can make them rewrite. What else is there to do? You discuss this poem, then everyone makes suggestions, and either the young poet ignores the suggestions or they follow some of them, and if they follow some of them they're doing this revision. Then they come back, and of course it's not perfect, so they revise again. The drudgery of revision is threatening to replace any kind of compositional spontaneity that young poets might trust in. Then again, it takes a while just to figure out a way to do it; it takes a lot of this drudge work to get there.
Dave: You were talking a moment ago about more demanding poetry. I don't pretend to know much about painting, but a lot of Modernist poems, filled with obscure references and supported by inches and inches of footnotes, put me in the mind of abstract art. The typical abstract painting isn't looking to travel, I don't expect a narrative, but as a viewer I can't find a way in. In their own way, some of those poems give a lay reader no grounding at all.
Collins: Well, painting is instantaneous: it happens to you as soon as you look at it. It's not linear, so you're not missing a reference here, then a reference later on, and you're not asked to connect the dots as you would be reading Eliot's Waste Land.
The analogy reminds me of that book by Tom Wolfe [The Painted Word] about modern painting where he says that for the first time in the history of painting, painting doesn't make sense unless you read the theory behind it. Art criticism and art theory begin to intervene; you have to go to school in some way to appreciate Cubism or Abstract Expressionism. The analogy holds up there, doesn't it? Just as with Eliot you'd want to read The Golden Bough or Jessie Weston, texts that help you read the second text. You don't need a text to understand Robert Burns, for example—you just need Robert Burns. (And a Scottish glossary. Someone said, "He was a great poet, but a terrible typist.") But that's the analogy there, needing to read Clement Greenberg in order to understand Ellsworth Kelly; you have to read Jessie Weston to understand T. S. Eliot.
I'm a professor of English and I've spent most of my life teaching poetry and literature. There are plenty of references and allusions in my poetry— it's really quite literary in some ways—but the reader is never required to pick up any of these references to gain admission into the little theater of the poem. If you pick them up you get bonus points, fifty extra Poetry Bonus Points, but if you don't you still get full credit.
Dave: You note in your introduction to Poetry 180 that "textbooks and anthologies often lag behind the times." I went to a particularly old fashioned university, so I was somewhat shocked to discover the joys of contemporary literature after graduation.
Collins: The poems taught in schools tend to be lagging behind fifty or a hundred years. One reason is that anthologies change so slowly. The popular anthologies tend to have gatekeepers that are very reluctant to let a rabble of contemporary poets come in, some ragtag group of poets, because they want to give history a little time to sort things out and get a sense of who's going to last. Otherwise, they'll have to take the poet out, and that becomes embarrassing. If the end of your anthology is full of poets that are being admitted then tossed out for the next edition, it doesn't fulfill the anthologizer's role of being a controller or a harbinger of posterity.
One of my ambitions as Poet Laureate, as you know from reading that introduction, was to bring high school students a quick exposure to very contemporary poetry. I don't think they hear those voices in the classroom. And as I said in there, even if the teacher is kind of hip—and the teacher might be a poet herself and will read a poem by Stephen Dunn or Mary Oliver or Sharon Olds occasionally—unless they just want to Xerox their life away, which they're doing anyway, they're still limited to the anthologies the schools approve of. Teachers in high schools don't usually control those choices.
How old is "The Red Wheelbarrow"? Was that written in 1920-something? [Editor's note: 1923.] That's still thought of as kind of a groovy, wild, contemporary, minimalist poem, but it's pretty old. To use an analogy from my own experience, when I was in college, or in graduate school, in the sixties, it would mean reading Edwardian poetry or late Victorian poetry like Swinburne as being up-to-date.
Dave: Do you draw inspiration from other modes of design, other structural forms? You write a lot about music, for example.
Collins: I think it's much more basic than that for me. It's probably my years with the Jesuits, learning about Aristotelian rhetoric, things having beginnings, middles, and endings. Also, reading Elizabethan and metaphysical poetry, in particular, Herbert or Donne, there's always a very clear sense of logical development, in the course of which you have all this sparky leaping around, the deployment of incredibly imaginative images and conceits. Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress" is a great template. If we had world enough, but we don't, so therefore? It's a very clear, syllogistic organization.
I think I'm copying those models more than something I would intuit in music or the structure of the blues. But the sonnet is like the blues; and the popular song is similar to some poetic forms, going out and then having a subdominant chord and some kind of modulation and return. These structures, some of them I think are very underlying.
Dave: I ask because I once took a course on postmodern literature in which, before the professor assigned any fiction, we read a book about postmodern architecture. To see the applications in another form, particularly a visual one, illustrated the underlying principles better than any literary criticism could have.
Collins: A lot of postmodernism tries to defy symmetry, but I think the pleasures of symmetry are irreplaceable. One simple analogy is the pleasure of massage. Massage is always symmetrical. It's one thing to have someone run their hands all over your body in some chaotic way, which is fine after you've had a couple bottles of wine, but one of the pleasures besides the sensual pleasure of having your muscles taken care of is that what is done on the left side will be done on the right side. You can anticipate that. As the left side is being massaged, the right side waits in anticipation; then it is satisfied. You go back and forth: hands and shoulders? That's such a basic pleasure, which would carry from massage into aesthetics and poetics.
Modernism seemed to try to get away from symmetry, and broader historical socio-cultural reasons were given: Nietzsche said, "God is dead"; Einstein turned physics upside-down; two World Wars? The world cannot waltz anymore; it can't pretend to have symmetry because it's leaning toward chaos. That sounds good on the blackboard, but I question the pleasure of listening to chaotic music, walking out of it saying, "That reflects our times, therefore I got real pleasure out of it."
Dave: You mention in Poetry 180 that a reader should be able to derive pleasure from one reading of the poems. That represents a fairly basic split right there: between those who would write to provide pleasure and those who would, as you say, represent our times. But the canvas on which you're working, at least on the surface, doesn't beg questions about current affairs, for instance. More often the speaker is simply standing on his lawn or in his kitchen, thinking.
Collins: My poetry is suburban, it's domestic, it's middle class, and it's sort of unashamedly that, but I hope there's enough imaginative play in there that it's not simply poems about barbequing.
I'm a professor. I've been an academic most of my life. I enjoy a great deal of what used to be called "domestic tranquility." But also, besides those biographical facts, what I'm also doing with this creature on the lawn, as you mention, or the fellow looking out the window at the lawn or the bird feeder, I'm picking up an 18th Century or early 19th Century English figure: the stroller, or the walker, the Wordsworthian fellow who has all the time in the world, this leisurely sense of time, this luxury of being very preoccupied with your own thoughts and having a certain degree of delight in landscape and environment. I'm taking that romantic stroller, that fellow who sits on a wayside bench and falls into a meditation, basically taking him out of the early 19th Century and putting him in an American context.
Dave: There's often a flirtatiousness in your poems, a confidence at play not unlike seduction.
Collins: It's an attempt to achieve intimacy. You could look at some of the strategies as seductive devices. They're meant to seduce the reader into being interested. They're meant to form a kind of temporary companionship with the reader, without being presumptuous, without presuming that a reader would be interested in my inner turmoil just because it's my inner turmoil.
I don't think people read poetry because they're interested in the poet. I think they're read poetry because they're interested in themselves. That's why I read poetry. I read poetry to discover things about myself, not so much to discover things about Emily Dickinson. My consciousness and my thought processes have a lot to do with the content of these poems, but I'm always careful not to foist my problems or personal turmoil onto a reader in a psychoanalytic way. I presume that they're not interested.
Dave: Have you been reading anything particularly good lately?
Collins: I've been reading George Herbert some more. And I've been reading a lot of William Matthews because his collected poems just came out, called Search Party. I've been reading a lot of those and realizing again how good he is.
Dave: What did you take out of being Poet Laureate?
Collins: Well, I did perceive it as having a civic and communal American cultural dimension, and that's why I did Poetry 180. I also started a poetry channel on Delta Airlines. If you fly Delta you can look in the in-flight magazine where it has music and comedy and business talk; now there's a poetry channel with jazz and poetry, a parfait. The poems are contemporary, like the poems in Poetry 180—in fact, some are the same poems.
I believe poetry belongs in unexpected places—in elevators and on buses and subways. That's a good way to get it out of the classroom, out of the hands of academics and to bring poetry into public spaces. I thought airline audio would be a good thing to do. That and Poetry 180 were basically my legacy, if you want to use that word.
But you do get to see how people react to you differently, which is odd. You get treated with a sudden deference on the part of people who are hosting you. Instead of just meeting a couple of English professors when I'd visit a college, I'd start meeting trustees and the president and donors and other people who are philanthropically connected to the college. You realize that this title has some shine to it, and that people are going to trade off that title to raise funds. At that point, I become a little more detached from myself, even more than usual. You become aware of the overlay on your ordinary social image, which I don't put much stock in to begin with. It only increased my sense of having these two selves. The outer-self, the self that had the title, was getting so much attention that I found myself walking around with this dark little secret, that I wasn't really the Poet Laureate; I was really just me.
Dave: Do you see your poetry changing? Are your interests changing in terms of subject matter or style or tone?
Collins: Not too much. I'm not really interested in developing very much. I'm just trying to find new things to write about. I'm not interested too much in stylistic development. I just want more topics or more imaginative passages to follow. I think I've found some kind of style to write in and I'd be perfectly content to keep writing that way, advancing the same persona, staying within this tonal range that I've established. I think development is overrated. Emily Dickinson never developed.
Billy Collins read to a sold out Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures series on January 14, 2004.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State