The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems
Original Airdate: March 25, 2005
About the Author
About this Book
More ResourcesPoetry Collections
• The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)
• Questions About Angels (1991)
• The Art of Drowning (1995)
• Picnic, Lightning (1997)
• Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001)
• Nine Horses: Poems (2002)
• Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (2005)
• Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (2005)
• The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005)
Spoken Word CD
• The Best Cigarette (1997)
TranscriptRon Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Billy Collins, a poet, the Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2001 to 2003, currently Poet Laureate of New York State 2004 to 2006, author of eight books of poetry, most recently "Picnic Lightning" and a forthcoming volume called "The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems," winner of many awards and the like, including the first Mark Twain Award for humor from the Poetry Foundation. Welcome.
Billy Collins: Thanks for having me.
Ron Carlson: Glad to have you here.
Billy Collins: Good to be here.
Ron Carlson: Now, you're a poet -- first thing let's do, let's try to define what you think of as poetry or poems. You've done a lot of ambassadorship for the art of poetry and writing poetry in schools and with the public and your roles as a laureate. How would you define a poem?
Billy Collins: Well, let's just start with an easy one.
Ron Carlson: Sorry.
Billy Collins: I have been -- after I became poet laureate, I did kind of bang the drum for poetry, particularly in high schools, but I was very cautious about going out and just saying we should all wake up and read more poetry every morning because I don't -- I mean, I think there's about 15% of poems that are written today that I couldn't live without and the other 85 I have no -- you know, I just don't enjoy reading them. I stopped reading them. So I'm not all for everyone to go out and read a bunch of poetry. What I did was I picked 180 poems that I liked by contemporary poets, and I encouraged high school teachers to have one of them read in the classroom.
Ron Carlson: Every day?
Billy Collins: Every day.
Ron Carlson: Was there 180 because of 180 school days?
Billy Collins: Yeah, and then it did double duty -- I mean, poets are people who don't like to say one thing at a time, so it does also indicate a kind of turning around 180 degrees, turning back to poetry, and I think a lot of people are now turning back to poetry, and I think people have had the poetry kind of beat out of them by bad education or by just bad picks. I mean, if you went to high school or college when I did, and then stopped reading poetry, the last poem that would be ringing in your ears would be "Hiawatha" or something --
Ron Carlson: Or Robert Frost?
Billy Collins: Well, that's not a bad echo, but "Poetry 180" was also meant as a book, and now two books, to try to bring people up to speed about what's been happening in poetry since they left it, if they have.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Billy Collins: I skipped your question --
Ron Carlson: No, it's all right. I want to talk about that "Poetry 180." It's this book here, and there's two, there's this one -- and these are 180 of your favorite poems?
Billy Collins: Sort of. It was easy to find the first 90 or 100, those were favorites. Then I had to scramble around. 180 poems is a lot of poem to find by different authors, and now there are 360. But they're poems that are clear, they're contemporary, they're -- some of them are funny, some of them are elegiac.
Ron Carlson: Do you have one you could read from the "180"? We'll start with somebody else's --
Billy Collins: Sure. Let me read -- I started this out as a high school program, but the poems are not all about school or anything, but this one happens to be, and it's by a Canadian poet whose name is Tom Wayman, and the title of the poem -- you know this as a teacher -- the title of the poem is a question that if you're a student you should never, ever ask a teacher, and the question s and the title is: "Did I Miss Anything?" And the question is so impossible to answer that Wayman gives a number of false answers before he gives a real answer. So, "Did I Miss Anything?" by Tom Wayman.
"Nothing. When we realized you weren't here, we sat with our hands folded on our desks in silence, for the full two hours. Everything. I gave an exam worth 40 percent of the grade for this term and assigned some reading due today on which I'm about to hand out a quiz worth 50 percent. Nothing. None of the content of this course has value or meaning. Take as many days off as you like: Any activities we undertake as a class, I assure you, will not matter either to you or me and are without purpose. Everything. A few minutes after we began last time a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel or other heavenly being appeared and revealed to us what each woman or man must do to attain divine wisdom in this life and the hereafter. This is the last time the class will meet before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth. Nothing. When you are not present, how could something significant occur? Everything. Contained in this classroom is a microcosm of human experience assembled for you to query and examine and ponder. This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered, but it was one place, and you weren't here."
So I think he saves his kind of dedicated teacher answer for the end, after he kind of slaps the student around with some false extremes.
Ron Carlson: That's a good poem.
Billy Collins: Yeah, he's a good poet, Tom Wayman.
Ron Carlson: Well, "180 Poems," or some people have a couple of poems in there, but -- and so there are lots of poets in the United States now and lots of people in schools, high schools writing poems, and people in writing programs, the hundreds of writing programs writing poems, but it's not exactly a career path, poet?
Billy Collins: No, you would be a fool to set out to make a living as a poet. I suppose -- someone said that writers used to hang out in cafes and now they hang out in universities, and I -- I mean, personally speaking, my career was as an academic. I went to graduate school. I got a Ph.D. is romantic poetry as it turned out, and my poetry evolved much later. So I had a kind of steady career as a teacher of literature, and I kind of morphed into a poet in someone who teaches poetry in the middle of my life.
Ron Carlson: Beyond reading poems, what's the best training, if you were going to talk to someone who was in the 5th grade and they were just burning to be a poet, what advice do you have for them? Is there any real-world or academic or other advice?
Billy Collins: Well, in the 5th grade you don't need advice. I mean, it's impossible -- you don't need to give a 5th grader advice, because in the 2nd and 3rd and 4th and 5th and 6th grades, more or less, you're a natural born surrealist. The imagination of a 5th grader is boundless. The trouble is adolescents, and that's why I had this program to try to get poetry into -- contemporary poetry into high schools, because in adolescents, it seems that talent goes into a kind of tunnel and it hides itself, and, of course, there's emotional and hormonal new feelings and confusion, but the poetry turns into cliché. I mean, these little 8-year-old surrealists turn into Hallmark cards because they fall in love, I guess, and that fetters their imagination. But I wouldn't give a 5th grader any advice. But for later poets, I would just say, read extensively. I mean, there are the great emotions that poetry covers and poetry -- my definition of poetry is basically the history of human emotion. You know, human emotions aren't that many. I mean, we have like half a dozen, maybe, but there's grief and joy and elegy and separation and love, but the critical emotion to feel intimately and excruciatingly, if you want to be a writer, is jealousy, because no one writes --
Ron Carlson: Jealousy?
Billy Collins: Yeah, you have to be made jealous of other writers. That's why I think people write. They read -- you know, they read a poet or a novelist or a playwright, and instead of just being a normally cultured person and appreciating this, they become infuriated that they haven't written it, and that's what drives them to write their own.
Ron Carlson: You know, I've read a lot of your poetry. I read a lot of poetry. I'm a fiction writer, but I read it side by side -- of all kinds. And I read today, I read the poem about the three wishes. Is it a poem called "Three Wishes"?
Billy Collins: "The Three Wishes," yeah.
Ron Carlson: When I read the poem, I appreciated it as a cultured person, but it kind of made me want to write a poem.
Billy Collins: Good.
Ron Carlson: Now, is that the feeling you're talking about?
Billy Collins: That's the beginning.
Ron Carlson: It is?
Billy Collins: Envy is the beginning.
Ron Carlson: Do you have that poem?
Billy Collins: I do.
Ron Carlson: Why don't you read it and see if anybody else gets jealous. Maybe we can make some of the viewers jealous.
Billy Collins: That's what I'm here for. Well, this is -- I think it's typical of some of my poems in that it starts -- I like to start out poems on some common note, and this is a story that comes, I think, in many cultures, the story of The Three Wishes, and it's a fable with a moral, and this is the version that I always heard when I was a child that I based this on.
"The Three Wishes."
"Because he has been hungry for days, the woodsman wishes for a skillet of hot sausages. And because she is infuriated at his stupidity, his lack of vision, shall we say, his wife wishes the skillet would stick to his nose. And so the last wish must also be squandered by asking the genie to please remove the heavy iron pan from the poor man's face. Hovering in the smoke that wafts up from his exotic green bottle, the genie knew all along the couple would never escape their miserable lot, the cheerless hobble, the thin dog in the corner, cold skillet on a cold stove, and we knew this too, looking down from the cloud of a sofa into the world of a book. The man is a fool, it is easily said. He could have wished for a million gold coins, as his wife will remind him hourly for the rest of their rueful lives, or a million golden skillets if he had a little imaginative flare, and that is the cinder of truth the story wishes to place in one of our shoes. Nothing can come from nothing, I nod with the rest of the congregation. 'three wishes is three wishes too many,' I mutter piously as I look up from the story, but every time I think of it all I ever really feel, besides a quiver of sympathy for the poor woodsman, is a gnawing hunger for sausages, a sudden longing for a winter night, a light snow falling outside, my ax leaning by the door, my devoted heavyset wife at the stove, and a skillet of sizzling sausages, maybe some green peppers and onions, and for my seventh and final wish, a decent bottle of Italian -- no, wait, make that Chilean red."
Ron Carlson: Thank you. Let's talk about that poem as a model for writing poems. I was going to ask about the old question, the old writer's question, where do you get your ideas? Really what I'm interested in is the ignition point, the starting point. Do you remember that poem? What was the starting point? Did you hear a homily or a lesson in church?
Billy Collins: I think a poet or writer will take any starting point you can possibly get. I don't know how that came into my mind, but it's always been there. So as a child, I would hear that fable. It must have popped up. And then it's a matter of realizing that that has some potential or momentum in it as a starting place, and now that I'm a little self-conscious about the poem thanks to you, I realize that the word "but" is where the poem turns, as many poems do, like "but at my back I always hear." So the poem kind of humorously, I hope, goes through the stupidity of the poor woodsman and then it swings back to me, but all I ever feel. And so that's the kind of turn of the poem that starts out talking about, like the three little pigs or the three wishes, and then it kind of comes back to the poet.
Ron Carlson: We see that in your work. Let me remind everybody that we're talking with the poet Billy Collins about poetry in general. His most recent book is "Picnic Lightning" and his forthcoming book called "The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems." It seems to me one of the -- this is pretty liberal, but one thing leads to another in your work, that where that you ended up with that bottle of wine at the end of that poem could not have been foreseen when you started with the skillet stuck to the woodman's face.
Billy Collins: Right. That's critical.
Ron Carlson: So how do you, what I call, survive the draft? Can you talk about that?
Billy Collins: That's critical. Well, because I think I start like many poets, I mean when I talk about myself it's certainly not exclusive, but I start in someplace that I know and I think the reader knows, and I try to get to a place I didn't know existed. So when I change my preference, I become this kind of dilettante at the end. I mean, I'm presuming that I'm getting seven wishes, and wait a minute, I want to change this last wish from Italian to Chilean red. I didn't see that coming. That was the point of arrival. You're talking about the ignition. This is the destination, where the poem kind of pulls into the driveway at the end. And for me, very important in the pleasure -- one of the great pleasures of writing is making this little bit of travel to a place that you don't know where you're going and it's important, as someone said, to maintain the benefits of your ignorance as long as possible, and then to arrive at a place that really would not have existed were it not for the poem. So the poem actually creates this kind of -- this locus, this destination at the end.
Ron Carlson: The poem has its own finding.
Billy Collins: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: Exactly. Now, you're an experienced writer of poems, and is it easier to survive that ambiguity now -- I mean, I'm talking about the young poet again, a person in their third poem, and she's out past what she knows, uncertain of where she's going. Do you have anything to say to her?
Billy Collins: Well, trusting your own voice, trusting that what you say next has some validity only because you said it next, that there is a kind of sequence to your thinking, which might not be logical, but it should be trusted, and the other bit of advice might be to feel free to interrupt yourself. Often younger poets tend to stick maybe to a topic a little bit heavily, but I think poems work -- create more surprise when you get thrown off course, and often what seems like a distraction to maybe a younger poet is something you realize later is actually a clue. It's the poem maybe talking back to you and nudging you in a certain direction, and to write a poem like that you need to combine sort of willfulness, because you're writing it, but also a suggestibility so that you are listening to the poem and listening to where the language wants to go.
Ron Carlson: Sometime in writing -- short stories is similar many times when we talk about being humble before your materials. I mean, you can boss it so far, and then once it's up and going, you kind of have to listen.
Billy Collins: Yeah, and I think it's one of the humilities that's important for writers, that at some point in poem or the story, it takes on a kind of knowledge, and you have to keep up with it, and I think it's a good way to put it, that you shouldn't boss it around, you should be listening.
Ron Carlson: What about this thing we hear about the poet's muse? Should I as a poet wait around for the muse or should I work every day for an hour and a half?
Billy Collins: Well, sometimes the bird lands on your shoulder and there you are. I prefer to wait for visitations. I don't sit down and kind of commit an act of literature every morning at 9:00. But if the bird doesn't come after a while, then I sit down and actually I'll get out -- often I get out an encyclopedia, like a big one-volume encyclopedia, and I'll start flipping through it, or a dictionary, or a book, a reference book of some kind, art history book, and just let things start -- let associations begin. Some people, it's very idiosyncratic. I don't know about your work habits, but maybe you wake up every day and write from 9:00 to 12:00 or -- I keep quoting this quote by Max Birbaum who said the hardest thing about being a poet is knowing what to do with the other 23 1/2 hours of the day. It's not a labor-intensive job, and you can afford, unlike a fiction writer, you can afford to wait, unlike being in the midst of a novel where you really -- like Trollip, you need to get out 700 words a day, or whatever his quota was.
Ron Carlson: Do you have a poem that you know how the idea or the bird came, whatever the connection was, how the lightning struck, of these poems that we've talked about and possibly reading today? For instance, the poem "November" is --
Billy Collins: Some of them are just -- they start autobiographically.
Ron Carlson: You have a lot of households in your poems?
Billy Collins: I'm a very kind of domesticated -- or domestic poet.
Ron Carlson: Did the poem "November" start with that day and --
Billy Collins: It did --
Ron Carlson: Or remembered day and builds to -- it makes a much larger statement. It starts in the house and thinking about the daily taking care of the place and then moves to this larger notion about life and death.
Billy Collins: Well, I think you have to start -- I like to start small otherwise you can't get big. If that you start big, there's nowhere to go. So my poems begin with very mundane stuff, often just what's lying around the house or the weather, as in this case, and then I do kind of make a big hop at the end, you might say. So I'll read that then.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, please.
Billy Collins: "November."
"After three days of steady rain, over two inches, said radio, I follow the example of monks who wrote by a window, sunlight on the page. Five times this morning I loaded a wheelbarrow with wood and steered it down the hill to the house, and later I will cut down the dead garden with a clippers and haul the soft pulp to a grave in the woods. But now there is only my sunny page, which is like a poem I am covering with another poem, and the dog asleep on the tiles, her head in her paws, her hind legs splayed out like a frog. How foolish it is to long for childhood, to want to run in circles in the yard again, arms outstretched, pretending to be an airplane, how senseless to dread whatever lies before us when night and day, the boats, strong as horses in the wind, come and go, bringing in the tiny infants and carrying away the bodies of the dead."
So there you jump back to a kind of huge perspective of people entering and leaving life and this daily kind of procession, but -- it's a carpe diem poem, too, because you do this kind of quotidian stuff like bring the wood down, and there's the dog, and I also think the influence there is probably these Irish monks who wrote in their writing houses and often wrote in the margins little notations about themselves. So I kind of adopt that monastic position, and then perhaps it's that mindset that allows me to jump forward and say, "Why worry about -- why worry about not being a child again, and why dread the future? We're part of this kind of amazing and relentless procession of people being born and dying" --
Ron Carlson: And then it returns -- you have the horses, and a horse is a horse, but a horse is also larger -- by the time it appears in that second to last stanza, these things that carry us and move us, the boat is more than a boat --
Billy Collins: Yeah, there's some kind of boat that's strong as horse. I'm not sure how that goes. Horsepower.
Ron Carlson: Right, right, right. I want to make sure we have time for one of these other poems in a minute, but I want to ask first of all, you've had -- so being a poet, of course, is a very private thing. You write alone and hopefully you're idiosyncratic and personal enough to say something true for yourself, but now you have these public jobs, Poet Laureate of New York State. That's a big state. And of the United States. And more and more states and -- of course, the country, I guess, Ted Koozer is the current Poet Laureate.
Billy Collins: He is, yes.
Ron Carlson: What role -- what is this about? First of all, is it good for us to have a "commissioner of poetry" and what does the "commissioner" do?
Billy Collins: I think it's a good focal point, just that the -- the government, at least the Library of Congress, has an office called the Poet Laureateship, now anyway. I think it at least focuses attention on poetry, and you could say -- the cynical view would be that it's a sign of poetry's neglect in a way because we have a National Poetry Month. Any time you have a national something month, it means that it's calling for attention. You don't have a National Television Month. We don't need that. Mother's Day is a good example. But a more optimistic view is that we do have a person who is always seated in Washington who becomes -- he or she becomes a sort of lens for poetry and a place to put a kind of face on what otherwise might be a kind of mysterious business. So I think having a poet laureate is a good thing.
Ron Carlson: I want to -- this has been -- we're nearing the end here, and I want to get one more poem in. Which one would you like to read? Let's read a poem and then we'll close her down.
Billy Collins: Okay. I'd like to -- I think some people listening or watching might be wondering about how much craft is involved in these poems because they sound rather conversational, so that perhaps the answer is no craft whatsoever, but I would like to read a sonnet, which is kind of a loose sonnet, and I do mention in the sonnet Petrarch, who is almost kind of the father of the sonnet, and his beloved whose name was Laura, and my poem is just called "Sonnet."
"All we need is fourteen lines -- well, thirteen now. And after this one, just a dozen, to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas, then only ten more left like rows of beans, how easily it goes, unless you get Elizabethan and insist the iambic bongos must be played and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines, one for every station of the cross. But hang on here while we make the turn into the final six where all will be resolved, where longing and heartache will find an end, where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen, take off those crazy medieval tights, blow out the lights, and come at last to bed."
Ron Carlson: Thank you very much.
Billy Collins: You're very welcome.
Ron Carlson: You're obviously -- you're having a lot of fun in your poetry, but there's obviously more than that and it's terrific work. The last thing -- you go ahead and have the last word. I'm very interested in why we should go, why I should go now, when I leave, and read a poem today. What should I look for? How can poetry help our lives?
Billy Collins: Well, I think -- I'll just put it one way... We have this -- the great subject of poetry is mortality. It's always been the subject of lyric poetry, and the great theme in poetry is carpe diem, simply get more involved, seize the day that you have because you don't know how many are left, and we're walking around with this knowledge of our own mortality, but we develop these defense systems against really thinking about it. One is denial. Another might be the sense of this sort of afterlife that cushions death. And I think poetry is something that dismantles these defense systems, that tells us that -- reminds us again and again that we are mortal, that we need to take every day for -- as a potential miracle and never let the wonder leak out of our lives.
Ron Carlson: Sweet.
Billy Collins: So that probably is a good reason to read a poem.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, nicely stated. That's a great place to stop. We've been talking with the poet Billy Collins. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. We hope you'll join us next time.