by Cynthia Brackett-Vincent
In early October 2013, a bright fall day, I drove five hours west—with the sun in my eyes and the autumn trees seemingly on fire all the way—across the three northernmost New England states to hear Billy Collins speak at the University of Vermont.
That’s five hours across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for about an hour’s worth of Billy Collins. Add to those five hours time spent packing to spend the night, the cost of a hotel room, and turning around the next day to retrace my journey back home to central Maine. Packing included every book Collins has written or edited, because I wanted to go prepared. I wanted to peruse them in my hotel room—although I have read them all cover to cover and have used many of his poems and his audio recordings to introduce poetry to adult students.
I did manage to include in the trip a nice catch-up visit (complete with shopping, a “selfie photo” and a café lunch in Burlington) with my best friend (whose daughter is a UVM freshman), but why on earth would I go so far out of my way for Billy Collins? Because Collins is my favorite living poet.
Although Collins is a former two-term United States poet laureate and holds a Ph.D in English, he is not without detractors in the elite halls of academia and with literary critics. When I admit that I admire Collins in various literary circles, I wait for the proverbial shoe to drop—for someone to say that Collins is, somehow, not a “real” poet. R D. Pohl sums up this critical view in The Buffalo News: “To his critics…Collins is a ‘major minor’ poet at best whose work is formulaic, if not predictable, and whose relentless efforts to charm the reader assume that the only way a poem can work is on the demotic level, which is to say, as colloquial speech.’”
As if addressing this very criticism, Collins began his Vermont appearance by talking about the project he undertook during his tenure as United States Poet Laureate, “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.” Vermont Reads (sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council) is, according to its website, “A Statewide, One-Book Community Reading Program.” “Poetry 180” was selected as the Vermont Reads 2013 book. The “Evening with Billy Collins,” which I attended was the culmination, if you will, of “Poetry 180” being the sole focus of Vermont’s yearlong book club. “Poetry 180” itself began as a program, “Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools,” conceived of by Collins and implemented by the Library of Congress’ website. In the introduction to the anthology, Collins writes: “I ask high school teachers and administrators to adopt the program by having a new poem read every day—one for each of the roughly 180 days of the school year—as part of the public announcements.”
I arrived almost an hour early for Collins’ scheduled appearance. Still, I could not find any (legal) parking because so many had shown up to hear him speak. I opted to park in a dark lot behind a public building near the UVM campus, knowing full well that my Jeep might be towed. But I didn’t care. That’s (some) of the trouble with Billy Collins. I wanted to hear him and see him and meet him, and the possibility of having to pay a ransom for my vehicle was no matter. After I found a seat in the beautiful Ira Allen Chapel, I introduced myself to the person beside me, a UVM student who clearly was there only to fulfill some unknown class requirement as he texted on his cell phone through most of the program, and bolted out as soon as it was over.
No matter again. After an introduction by the fabulous poet Major Jackson, English professor at UVM (who dubbed the event the “Billy Collins Cruise Ship”—a reference to Collins’ huge fan base), and who, after mentioning Collins’ comedic side and how much has been made of that facet of his poetry, spoke about Collins’ well-made poems and his ability to “tease out the mysterious.” Collins then took the podium. As I expected, Collins was as self-effacing in his remarks as he can be in his poetry. In his poem, “The Student” (from “The Trouble with Poetry”), the narrator talks of buying and trying to concentrate on a book of instruction for writing poetry, but at the end, admits:
I try to be mindful,
but in these last days of summer
whenever I look up from my page
and see a burn-mark of yellow leaves,
I think of the icy winds
that will soon be knifing through my jacket (51).
This self-effacing trait is a part of Collins’ personality, and it endears readers like me to him. When he spoke of being appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, he said, “I figured they were going down a list and the others said no.”
Soon, he spoke about Poetry 180 and why it was so important to him to give high school students a sense of contemporary poetry by giving them accessible poetry. He referred to it as “teaching poetry backwards.” His aim in Poetry 180 was to teach poetry “seductively” by giving students poems they could appreciate immediately. After that, they could be introduced to “more challenging texts.” So often, studying poetry seems like torture. Collins’ mission, he said, was to “remove poetry from forms of torture.” He asserted, “Studying poetry shouldn’t be a form of interrogation.” By this, he means the questions teachers are likely to ask, such as, “What does the poem mean?” In “Poetry 180,” he explains, “I wanted teachers to refrain from commenting on the poems or asking students ‘literary’ questions about them. No discussion, no explication, no quiz, no midterm, no seven-page paper—just listen to a poem every morning and off you go to your first class’” (xvi).
Nowhere is his disdain for poetry as interrogation more clear than in his poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” (which he read that evening to the crowd’s delight) from “The Apple That Astonished Paris.” The narrator begins by hoping his students will savor a poem, listen to it, gaze at it. Instead:
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 (58).
Collins talked about the welcome change in American poetry brought about by Whitman with his “Leaves of Grass.” He said Whitman “removed the training wheels” from poetry by not using rhyme and meter traditionally. Collins made the point that while traditions in poetry—including rhyme and meter—should be appreciated, poets have the choice to use them at will—sparingly, and/or as the poet sees fit. He spoke of traditional structure in poetry and how structure lends a sense of trust to the reader because the reader knows what to expect. But for those who choose less structured verse, that trust can be made up by “letting the reader in on it.” That is to say, if the reader is able to identify and feels a part of the poem in the beginning, the reader will have trust in the poetry.
Collins has done a huge service towards promoting poetry itself through Poetry 180 (the high-school project and the anthology) and with “180 More,” a follow-up anthology, published in 2005. In “180 More,“ he addresses the general idea of “accessible” poetry, which he also discussed at the UVM event. “The trouble with using the term so broadly is that it can apply equally to the collected works of Mother Goose as well as to many of the poems by Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Philip Larkin…In a more helpful application of the term, I would suggest, ‘accessible” would mean ‘easy to enter,’ like a building’” (xiv). He makes a clear distinction, then, between “simple-minded” and “accessible.” By giving students and the public accessible poetry in his own work and in his edited anthologies, he invites us in. We, his readers, are welcome guests. We learn to trust the poetry. We trust him.
Does he advocate that poets and would-be poets write accessible poetry off the bat, easily, and be done with it? Hardly. When asked what advice he’d give budding poets, he said, “Read,” meaning read all the poetry one can. He likened becoming a poet to becoming any other artist—musician, painter. We expect that musicians study classical music, that they are able to read musical notation. We expect that artists study art history and various artistic methods and media. Collins noted that poets can begin with “feelings and $1.29 at Office Depot” (presumably the cost of a pen or notebook). But that isn’t enough—poets should, as any artist should, study their craft. Collins’ method of bringing students to poetry through the back door, where they are comfortable, if you will, is ingenious.
The trouble with the evening with Billy Collins is that it ended all too soon. I was determined to meet him and gush to him about how much I love his work and appreciate what he has done for poetry. I was also hoping he would autograph my book of his haiku. I came across the book at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last year and had to have it because I write and publish haiku. It was such a pleasant surprise to find that he had written a book of haiku. “She Was Just Seventeen”(referring to the seventeen syllables in traditional haiku) is a limited edition from Modern Haiku Press, and beautifully produced as you can see below. I liked the cover so much that I searched out the cover stock for an anthology of favorite poems from the first fifteen years of “the Aurorean” (the poetry journal I’ve published since 1995). We published the anthology using the same cover stock and jacket style of “She Was Just Seventeen” later in 2012.
Alas, Collins was not signing books that evening, but the fact remains I want more of Collins and will likely go out of my way to hear him speak and read poetry again, giving me hope that someday, I will have that book signed. Happily, I was able to shake his hand and tell him that I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation (meanwhile, I treasure my autographed first edition of “The Trouble with Poetry”—a Christmas gift from a good friend).
The trouble with Billy Collins is that his poetry incites poetry—a phenomenon that is the subject of his own title poem, “The Trouble with Poetry.”
“But mostly poetry/fills me with the urge to write poetry,” are the pivotal lines. My reply to the line, “And how will it ever end?” is that it will not. Because of the inspiration I receive from Collins (and other poets), I will continue to write and teach poetry. The urge to write, to be one of those “guppies crowding the fish tank” is unstoppable. I will use Collins’ poems and his “180“ anthologies to teach—above all—appreciation for poetry. Students must identify, take personally, something they wish to study. Collins gives us the door to enter—the gift of accessibility—to teach the art and craft of fine poetry. Here is my own poem, inspired by his, written a few years ago:
The Trouble with Billy Collins Poetry
The trouble with Billy Collins poetry
I think—the balding poet’s voice
coursing through my crackly speakers
as I drive the back roads of Maine—
is that it fills me with the notion
that I too can become Poet Laureate
of the United States.
That or this turn of phrase—
some of mine work just as well.
I could round up a few horses,
a black bear, learn to interrogate angels,
drown, sit at my window and stare.
The trouble with Billy Collins poetry
I find, is the urge to write my own poetry—
to take my eyes momentarily
off the bumpy road,
scribble in my notebook
while navigating the car.
The urge to write my own poetry—
a line I stole almost directly
from the self-effacing poet
on this dreariest of days—
and yes, that’s it—perhaps Poet Laureate
of This Little Town, Maine—population 1,200
on a swelling good day—
with its treacherous roads, muddied,
potholed, for us poets From Away.
The references in stanza two are to artwork, poems and title poems of Collins’ books (“Nine Horses,” “The Trouble with Poetry,” “Questions About Angels and The Art of Drowning,” and the poem, “Monday”). You see how this goes. Poetry inciting poetry.
At this point, the reader will be relieved to know (as I was) that my Jeep was not towed that evening, that I returned to it safely, with poetry on my mind, in my heart, and at the tip of my pen. I returned as inspired as I have ever been to shout poetry from the rooftops. I returned eager to dig in to Collins’ newest book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (pre-ordered on Amazon for its October 22 debut)—a book that is making poetry-best-selling history as I write.
Collins, Billy, Ed. 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday.” New York: Random House, 2005. Print.
—–. Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.
“Introduction to Poetry.” Collins, Billy. The Apple That Astonished Paris. Fayetteville: U. of Arkansas Press, 1998. Print.
“The Trouble with Poetry.” Collins, Billy. The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.[CB4]
Pohl, R D. “Poetic justice; Billy Collins still stirs controversy.” Buffalo: Buffalo News, 17 Nov. 2006: G16. 1 Nov. 2013. Web.
“The Student.” Collins, Billy. The Trouble with Poetry And Other Poems. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.
Quotations from Billy Collins and Major Jackson: “An Evening with Billy Collins.” Ira Allen Chapel, Burlington. 02 Oct. 2013. Reading.
Photos ©2013 Cynthia Brackett-Vincent
Cynthia Brackett-Vincent is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She has published/edited the Aurorean poetry journal since 1995 and has had over 100 of her own poems plus nonfiction published in the United States and abroad. Her work has recently appeared in First Water: Best of Pirene’s Fountain (Glass Lyre Press). Cynthia’s 2012 co-edited anthology, Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland) was named one of 100 Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers. Her new book of poems is Questions About Home (2014, Encircle Publications). She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington and is pursuing her MA in English/Creative Writing—Poetry at Southern New Hampshire University to prepare to teach poetry writing at the community college level. Cynthia lives in Maine with her husband and their three rescue cats where she enjoys hiking and snowshoeing. She has three grown sons, three daughters-in-law, and five grandchildren. She considers, “Grammie, what does poetry mean?” (from six-year old Noah) to be one of the best questions she has ever been asked. Visit http://www.encirclepub.com