Poet Laureate Billy Collins visited Lesley’s Doble Campus on Wednesday February 26, to read poetry from his collections, give a short lecture, and answer questions from the audience. Collins is a distinguished poet. In addition to serving as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, he has been awarded the Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry and has received a fellowship from the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
In less than 40 minutes, Collins covered a lot: he read eight of his funny, inspired poems (“Orient,” “Carry,” “Absence,” “Cheerios,” “In the Evening,” “Hippos on Holiday,” “My Hero,” and finally “Litany”), he tried to define poetry, and he discussed his career in poetry.
“You have to be a little crazy to write these poems,” he told the audience. “It helps.” Collins confessed that there are two fundamental subjects of poetry or, more broadly, literature: death and love. With respect to this subject matter Collins read “Orient” and “Carry,” which, as he pointed out, is the verb and not the name.
To write his poetry, Collins tries to find new ways to approach that subject matter. He read poems which he thinks seem unburdened by a topic or theme; these included “Absence,” “In the Evening,” and “My Hero.” He also read “Cheerios,” which focuses on his realization that he is, in fact, older than Cheerios. “That dude’s older than Cheerios,” he expected the people sitting behind him in the restaurant to whisper.
His “My Hero” tells an alternative interpretation of the classic The Tortoise and the Hare in which the hare wins because the tortoise has slowed down to “nibble a bit of sweet grass.” Collins explained that this poem is an attempt to focus on the present, asking the reader to slow down.
Collins thinks that this is what makes poetry in verse different from prose, saying that the lines (which don’t reach the end of the page) turn the reader back in. At the end of a line, the reader is turned back into the next line. This turning the reader back in is how he defines poetry, as a means of slowing down the multitasking and putting the break on one’s ambitions.
When asked about his voice in his writing, Collins admitted that he defied the teachings of many. Very often, students are told that they need to find their voices. He claimed that a person’s voice is not locked inside of him or her. Instead, it exists in numerous external sources. It lies in the works of others. One’s voice is on the library shelf, as Collins insisted. An external source that greatly inspired Collins is John Donne’s poem “The Flea,” which Collins envied for its ability to be simultaneously sexy and witty.
Collins offered some advice about poetry, as well. Firstly, he said that a poet must develop his or her form, stanzaically and metrically. He further offered more valuable advice: don’t write when you’re emotional. Instead, a poet should write when he or she is stagnant and unbiased by emotions. As he observed, once he realized that he was not unique to feel distant from the world as a teenager and that no one cared about how he was feeling, his poetry became much better.
After admitting that 83%—a percentage which he claimed was according to his extensive studies—of all contemporary poetry is not worth reading (and the same can be said with respect to movies and restaurants), he concluded his talk by reading his famous poem “Litany.” “Litany” is a hilarious attempt to make fun of another poet he read in some magazine who wrote a 40 line poem comparing his lover to nature and other trivial things.
Billy Collins thoroughly entertained the audience with his humorous poems and insightful, valuable advice. He was eager to have a conversation with his audience and encouraged people to ask questions. The dude who’s older than Cheerios, and at least a little crazy, was nonetheless a pleasure to have at Lesley