Billy Collins: ‘When I start a poem, I assume the indifference of readers’
The former US poet laureate believes in bringing poetry to the widest possible audience. Some critics have found his poetry to be lacking in complexity, but he’ll take that over wilful obscurity any day
Billy Collins: ‘It is like an eye chart, with its big E at the top, and the letters getting less legible as it moves along. A poem should be like that’
‘The idea of a popular poet is a bit of an oxymoron in people’s minds,” says Billy Collins, the luminary lyricist and former American poet laureate, who will give a public reading at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival.
“If the general population has to go out of their way to find poetry, if they have to go to the library or bookstore, I’m not sure they will. We shouldn’t have to seek out poetry; it should seek us out. It needs to be part of everyday life.”
Collins’s manifesto seems idealistic, but the impact he has had since he first gained public prominence in the 1980s has changed the cultural landscape in the US dramatically. During his two terms as national poet (2001-2003), he pioneered a variety of innovative initiatives that saw poetry appear in unexpected places: the back of cereal boxes, subway stations, and, most importantly for him, the classroom, where contemporary poetry had all but disappeared from the curriculum.
“The job of the poet laureate is to bang the drum for poetry,” he says. “And when I was first offered the position, I was uncomfortable. I can’t bang the drum for all poetry, I thought, because some of it is terrible. So I decided to gather together poems that I could bang the drum for: witty, imaginative contemporary poems. They were put together first on a website and then we published an anthology, Poetry 180, which is still used a lot in schools.
“I have got a stack of feedback over the years from teachers about how the anthology works in the classroom; how they will read a poem with the class, say every day or week, and how students will often hear things that grab their interest and have to admit to themselves that it’s a poem.”
Fear of poetry
His impact on education was a particularly heartening victory for Collins, because he believes that it is at school that we first begin to distance ourselves from our natural poetic inclinations. “Children are natural poets,” he says. “When you think about it, they are fascinated by rhyme and language for the sake of language, the pleasure of it for the ear. But I think there is a fear of poetry instilled in us at school, often because very difficult texts are chosen.
“Of course, if you teach The Waste Land [by TS Eliot], the teacher is necessary, but poetry shouldn’t require mediation, and I think that’s why people come out of school thinking poetry is a puzzle, or not for them, when poetry really has the potential to have such a wide-reaching effect upon our lives.”
Needless to say, Collins’s own work – which has been published in 14 collections spanning nearly 40 years – is the type of poetry that is immediately engaging to the reader. In fact, his first poems were published in Rolling Stone magazine, “when poetry still had the ability to insinuate itself into those kind of situations, and could reach hundreds and thousands of readers”. Since the 1990s, his collections have regularly appeared on American bestseller lists, and his readership is such that he even secured a six-figure advance from his publishers at the beginning of his laureateship that was rumoured to be close to $1 million.