National Writing Project

Poet, Educator, Advocate Billy Collins to Address Annual Meeting

Date: August 31, 2009

Summary: Two-time Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a mission to bring good contemporary poetry that is accessible and pleasurable to students in schools across the nation.


When Billy Collins, who will speak at NWP's 2009 Annual Meeting, took on the responsibilities of Poet Laureate in 2001, he knew that he wanted to create a way for young people to view poetry not as a puzzle, but as a pleasure.

A Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, Collins often visits schools, so he understands how students sometimes view poetry with a less than enthusiastic attitude, to put it mildly.

In his book Poetry 180, A Turning Back to Poetry , he recounts how on one of his excursions a girl presented him with a story she had written for the school newspaper. "Whenever I read modern poetry it's like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool," she wrote.

That, says Collins, is "a memorable summary of the discomfort so many people seem to experience with poetry."

Collins perhaps best expresses his view of the state of poetry in a poem. In "Introduction to Poetry ," Collins urges students to approach poems with a child's playful inquisitiveness:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

Unfortunately, however, students have learned all too well to decode what the poet is "trying to say."

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.

Collins believes this is absolutely the wrong starting place for helping novice poetry readers connect to a poem. And it's no compliment to the poet either. What it's implying, he says, is that "every poem is a failed act of communication."

Collins, who is known for his humor, imagines a likely syllogism that a student constructs while reading a modern opaque work:

I understand English
This poem is written in English
I have no idea what this poem is saying.

Taking a 180-Degree Turn

Instead of asking, "What is the meaning of this?" Collins proposes an about-face, a 180-degree turn away from what many students see as academic torture toward genuine enjoyment.

In conjunction with the Library of Congress, Collins established a website, Poetry 180 , that provides "a poem a day for American high school students." The site includes "a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically 'get' on first hearing."

Collins wants one of these collected poems to be read aloud each day, perhaps over the school public address system during morning announcement.

"The daily poem may be read aloud by any member of the school community: a student, a teacher, an administrator, or a staff person. . . . Ideally the editor of the student literary magazine would read one day and the volleyball coach the next; a member of the grounds crew might be followed by the principal," he writes.

The approach to poetry he recommends on Poetry 180, however, asks that there be "no discussion, no explication, no quiz, and no midterm, no seven page paper—just listen to the poem every morning and off you go to your class."

Collins hopes students will find something akin to the "wildness" and "outrageousness" he first experienced when he was introduced to Beat poetry in 1957 as a student at a Catholic high school in the suburbs of New York City.

"I finally understood the phrase 'freedom of expression,'" he writes in the preface to The Best Teen Writing of 2007 (PDF).

The only poetry he had heard before were authors who were all "male, dead, bearded, and each of them had three names: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson." Their poetry "seemed as if it was issuing forth from the grave," whereas the beats' poems "sounded as if they were being shouted from the rooftops of a city."

Suddenly, poetry had new meaning, and he was hooked.

Eye-Opening Poetry

Collins understands, of course, that "the conceptual demands some poems make on their reader can provide an essential pleasure, but this is hardly a recommended starting place" for connecting students to poetry.

He wants students to encounter poetry in a way that convinces them that "poetry can be an understandable . . . even eye-opening part of their daily lives."

"Understandable" and "eye-opening" are two words that drive Collins' own work as a poet. His poems have been described as reader-friendly, hospitable, and in general welcoming. Collins' poems tend to have a beginning, middle, and end—"opening like the first chapter of a novel," he says.

"As I'm writing, I'm always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast or too glibly," he told the New York Times in 1999.

Collins' attention to his audience comes through in his poem "Dear Reader ."

...our meeting is so brief and accidental...
you could be the man I held the door for
this morning at the bank or post office
or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street
or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.

"We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going," said the poet Stephen Dunn. "I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn't hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered."

This description encapsulates what Collins is up to. His directness connects to what he sees as the very purpose for reading poetry. "People don't read poetry because they are interested in the poet," he says, "but because they are interested in themselves."

Reading with gravitas and mischief

Annual Meeting attendees will be treated to a seasoned and celebrated speaker in Collins. His readings to high school students are greeted with admiration. According to Bruce Weber, who wrote about Collins in the New York Times, he "reads in a voice that leavens gravitas with a hint of mischief" that works with students.

To get a preview of Billy Collins, watch the videos below.




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