Post #116: Billy Collins

Poetry, Things You Should Be Reading

billy_collins_1Billy Collins is probably the most famous living American poet whose name is not Maya Angelou. A pillar of American letters, he’s about as well regarded critically and popularly as it’s possible for a poet to be while still drawing breath, and living in a country that doesn’t much give a shit about poetry.

Because I live in a great city (Burlington, VT), I learned that Billy Collins was doing a free reading last week up on campus as UVM at the lovely, though horribly humid and hard-benched Ira Allen chapel, and my better half and I double dated (yeah, that’s right, double-dated to a poetry reading, sucka!) to watch Mr. Collins.

If you don’t know Billy Collins’s poems, you should. Even if you’re not a poetry fan. As someone once said, Collins writes poetry for people who don’t like poetry. That’s a bit trite, but kind of true. And his poems might just trick you into loving poetry. They possess the fairy dust of every day life at its funniest and most enlightening. His poems are easy to read and follow, yet never shallow or simple. They are always fresh, yet instantly recognizable.

In the hour he was on stage, Collins actually didn’t read all that much poetry. I’d sort of expected he’d read twenty or thirty poems and then slip away into the night. But he was also there to discuss poetry and in particular a book of poems he edited called Poetry 180, which he intended to be poems that could be read aloud to high school kids as little poetic nuggets. Poems that could be appreciated on the first pass. He talked a bit about his philosophy for writing poems, which is to craft poems that tend to start in the concrete and then venture gradually into the not so concrete, perhaps even abstraction or a dream state. He talked about poetry’s tendency to plunge a reader into a dark basement and make them search for a flashlight, and how his method is the opposite, to craft poems whose “game” is easy to spot. Poems that aren’t trying to hide from the reader, that desire to make their intent a bit more clear so as to increase enjoyment and accessibility. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, rah rah rah. It’s poetry! Who cares?

But I was there; it was damn interesting. It was a packed house. People were riveted.

If nothing else, it’s always a thrill to see in the flesh an artist who you’ve long admired from afar. He was dapper, self-depricating, hilarious, and completely lovable. I kind of wish I could hang out with him, or that he was my uncle or something.

So you can better smell what I’m cookin, here’s a clip of Collins reading one of his most famous poems, and one he read for us the other night, “The Lanyard.” It’s the blend of funny and sweet and sad that so many of his poems possess. He was a bit more dynamic the other night than in this clip, but you’ll see what I mean.

Post #41: A Poem a Week (Roughly) for National Poetry Month


Today, in continued honor of National Poetry Month, I share with you Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”  It’s long been a favorite of mine.  Enjoy.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,

and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with

much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Post #38: A Poem a Week for National Poetry Month, Part One


In honor of the first week of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share with you a personal favorite, Billy Collins’s “The Lanyard.”

Billy Collins–The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Post #24: Take this Poem, and Listen to It


Alan Heathcock, a writer I admire, recently wrote a fabulous short essay for NPR about reading a poem a day to quiet his mind and steady himself against the bustling life he (and we all) leads.

I listened to the audio version of Alan’s piece while waiting for the shower to warm up (it’s short) and it made me think of a similar practice I enact in my teaching life.

A few years ago, feeling that I wasn’t exposing my students to enough poetry, both because I wasn’t feeling terribly confident at teaching poetry and because I’m always feeling pressed for time in my work and find formal exploration of poetry incredibly time consuming, I began the practice of reading each class a poem before we started the day’s work.  I read them Billy Collins.  I read them Langston Hughes.  Robert Frost.  Carl Sandburg.  Emily Dickinson.  Major Jackson.  Alan Ginsberg.  Elizabeth Bishop.

We don’t discuss the day’s poem.  I don’t ask the students what they think it means.  In fact, there’s an unofficial no interpretation rule.  I ask for nothing from the students but their open ears.  Even half open will do.  After all, one of poetry’s great pleasures is its aural gifts and once you begin reading poems out loud, taking your time and savoring the language, you’ll soon begin asking yourself why you ever would read them any other way.

Once in a while, my students react to the poems.  One will nod appreciatively, another will give a small compliment to the author, or even rarer, to me as the reader.  But I don’t mind admitting that mostly they don’t respond at all.  I say the  poem title and the author’s name before reading and again when I finish, and then off we go into class, the poem quickly behind us.  When I first started doing this, I felt a little self conscious when I’d catch students staring off into space or scribbling in their notebooks or even scuttling past me to their seats after arriving tardy while I read.  But I quit worrying about that, tried to remember why I’d started reading them a poem a day in the first place.  For its simple pleasure.  For the reminder it gives about poetry’s immediate, often unexpected, joys.  In an environment where they’re constantly being pushed and scrutinized, urged to think deeply, it’s nice to get a break.  And I like reminding them, and myself, that poetry can provide that.  Even if we don’t fully understand what we just heard.