by John Stoehr
Here's an example of what this newfangled media called the Internet can do for the old arts like poetry. Billy Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. His poetry is lyrical, elegiac and wonderful to speak aloud. He appears regularly on A Prairie Home Companion and collaborates with other artists, like this animator Juan Delcan.
This poem is called "The Dead."
I almost forgot that I interviewed Collins about this time last year for the Savannah Morning News. Here's the interview. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly his anti-modernist sensibility and charges made against him for "the dumbing down of American verse."
November 12, 2006
Savannah Morning News
For Billy Collins, poetry is about connecting.
It's not about writing epic verse or channeling the song of the great muses. You won't find in his work references to arcane Jacobean playwrights, Frazer's "Golden Bough" or footnotes citing, in Italian, Dante's "Inferno."
You know, like T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" - the kind of poem that's difficult for difficulty's sake.
Instead, you'll find poems hoping to find common ground with common people, splitting the difference between highbrow pretension and lowbrow condescension.
"I believe there are enough educated people with enough common sense and sense of humor and emotional life that are susceptible to being stimulated by a poem," Collins said from his home near New York City. "I can only trust there are people out there who are susceptible to an intelligent expression that takes 14 or 25 lines."
With egalitarian sensibility in place, Collins was tapped to be U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 by the Library of Congress. His agenda - though the invitation came out of the blue, he says - was to encourage high school students to read one poem a day, with no expectation that they analyze, synthesize or otherwise pulverize it with the demands of getting an education.
"I thought maybe high school is where our natural love of poetry goes awry," Collins said.
So he put together an anthology called "Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry," with the hope that students would rediscover the joys of language, imagery and rhythm.
"It seems to have caught fire," Collins said. "It sold 60,000 copies."
In poetry circles, that's a bona fide bestseller.
Not everyone has been happy with the cost of Collins' popularity.
In a 2005 article for the literary magazine New Criterion, critic William Logan, referring to Collins' most recent volume, "The Trouble with Poetry," lambastes Collins as being "a crowd-pleaser" and for encouraging the "dumbing down of American verse."
"The world can stand one Billy Collins, but what happens when everyone writes poems that humiliate the art they practice?" Logan writes.
We caught up with Collins to talk about the reading he'll give Tuesday as part of Savannah Country Day School's "Creative Minds" series. He discussed the trouble with poetry and how, when compiling his anthology, he tried "to overlook poems by someone committing an act of literature."
Q: What is the trouble with poetry?
A: The question is: Are the poems difficult or would they be less difficult if people spent more time reading poetry? Fortunately, we're outgrowing that difficulty. There are many poets who write legibly, so to speak, whose poems can be absorbed with some immediacy. It's a matter of shaking off the preconceptions accepted at school.
Q: Why did poetry become so difficult?
A: That began with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The modernists were reacting to the simplicity of Victorian poetry. Modernism was a reaction to the sentimental and sing-song rhythm and meter of 19th-century poetry. But the world was in a disruption position after the First World War and the Depression. Stable and clear poetry was thought not to reflect the unsettled quality of the time. Difficult times demanded difficult poetry.
Q: When did that break loose?
A: With the Beats, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They were writing in a much more impassioned, hysterical style, an anti-academic feeling that was meant to be shouted out the window. Then there's William Carlos Williams who wrote simple poetry relying on one or two images per poem. They were so opposed to the difficulty of Eliot as to amount to nothing. "The Red Wheelbarrow" (by Carlos Williams) doesn't mean much unless you read "The Waste Land" first. It's so simple as to be assaulting.
Q: What was your agenda as U.S. Poet Laureate?
A: Poetry was not acceptable in high school. I thought maybe high school was where our natural love of poetry goes awry. I found 180 clear, good and interesting poems and put them on the Internet. We began to encourage one poem to be read per day - not to be discussed, but just to hear it on the morning announcements. It seems to have caught fire.
Q: What kinds of poems did you pick?
A: I looked for poems with a human voice, so that I could hear someone talking to me - an organized premeditated kind of writing, but that still retained natural speech sounds. I tended to overlook poems by someone committing an act of literature. I like poems with a sense of humor, irony and lightness. Poems worth reading more than once, but that you get on the first bounce.
Q: What's your response to William Logan's assertion that you humiliate the art?
A: Many poems make fun of the pretensions of formal poetry. The ridiculousness arises from the gulf between poets who take themselves too seriously and the rest of the world that doesn't give a fig about them. So everything is up for grabs. I like mischief in my poems ... satire, fun. (Logan's assertion) is typical of taking the high road. Readers don't want to take the high road. If you do, then the company you keep will be other poets.