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Billy Collins describes his poetry like an eye chart: the letter at the top is clear but by the bottom you are squinting and hopefully a little confused. Known for his accessible, unpretentious and often humorous style, Collins has been called the most popular poet in America. He has used his fame to lift poetry from the libraries and the halls of academia into public spaces. Through a variety of initiatives, Collins has brought poetry to the sides of subway cars and buses — he even created a poetry channel for Delta Airlines. His latest book is “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.” Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins joins Diane for the hour.
- Billy Collins Author of 10 collections of poetry. His latest is “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems”. He was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. He is a distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems” by Billy Collins. Copyright © 2013 by Billy Collins. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. After Billy Collins published his collection of poetry called "The Trouble with Poetry" in 2004, he was asked in an interview, what is the trouble with poets? Collins answered, difficulty combined with presumptuousness.
MS. DIANE REHMHe's known as the accessible poet and has achieved a level of popularity and success few American poets could ever imagine. He's just published "Aimless Love," the greatest hits, as Collins calls it, from his last four books along with a selection of new poems.
MS. DIANE REHMBilly Collins joins me to read from and talk about his new collection. We welcome you into the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Billy Collins, it's good to see you again.
MR. BILLY COLLINSVery good to see you, too. I love the way you say, tweet.
REHMDo you hear that fairly frequently?
COLLINSI do and you're using it.
REHMBilly Collins, I want to understand what you mean when you use the word, presumptuousness.
COLLINSAh, well, I find, you know, a number of things wrong with a lot of contemporary poetry. I find that the poetry I really like has a lot going for it and I couldn't do without it. But by presumptuous, I mean, the presumption that the reader is predisposed to be interested in one's and the poet's subjective life.
COLLINSSo that kind of presumptuousness that the poet's thoughts and feelings are of themselves of interest to the reader. Now the reader is a stranger so I tend to tell my students who write poetry, I say, nobody cares.
COLLINSIt would be psychotic to be interested in the subjective life of a stranger so you must use seductive strategies in poetry to get them interested.
COLLINSWell, starting slowly, I mean, instead of jumping into the middle of some kind of psychic problem, laying out something very simple in the beginning of the poem to get the reader to step into the world of the poem and then more can be revealed. In other words, the sauce can be thickened as the poem goes along.
COLLINSBut I like starting out with something very obvious, very clear that we can all agree on and then we can move into more challenging areas.
REHMRead for us the title poem "Aimless Love."
COLLINSI'd be happy to. It's a poem, but kind of compares two very different kinds of love. "Aimless Love," "This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, I fell in love with a wren and later in the day with a mouse the cat had dropped under the dining room table. In the shadows of an autumn evening, I fell for a seamstress still at her machine in the tailor's window and later for a bowl of broth, steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
COLLINSThis is the best kind of love, I thought, without recompense, without gifts or unkind words, without suspicion or silence on the telephone. The love of a chestnut, the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel, no lust, no slam of the door, the love of the miniature orange tree, the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower, the highway that cuts across Florida. No waiting, no huffiness or rancor, just a twinge every now and then for the wren who had built her nest on a low branch overhanging the water and for the dead mouse still dressed in its light brown suit.
COLLINSBut my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod ready for the next arrow. After I carried the mouse by the tail to a pile of leaves in the woods, I found myself standing at the bathroom sink, gazing down affectionately at the soap, so patient and soluble, so at-home in its pale, green soap dish. I could feel myself falling again as I felt its turning in my wet hands and caught the scent of lavender and stone."
REHMI love that poem.
COLLINSWell, thank you.
REHMI just love it. But now I'm going to ask you to be the professor and break this down for us.
REHMTalk first about the seduction.
COLLINSOf that poem?
REHMOf that poem.
COLLINSOkay, we're going to stick on that page. Well, the seduction is having an I speaker, right? The personal. "This morning, as I walked along the lakeshore, I fell in love with a wren. Well, that's, you know, that's a bit of a step there, but at the same time, the poem establishes a pattern of a speaker who is now going to fall in love with a number of things, including a dead mouse, a seamstress, a bowl of broth.
COLLINSAnd then, a little into the poem, the contrast begins so once the reader has been presented with this guy who is falling in love with everything around him, a bird or a mouse, he then declares, "this is the best kind of love, I thought, without recompense," without gifts. So basically the pattern of the poem is a kind of comparison and contrast, like an essay you'd write in school.
COLLINSYou're comparing romantic love, which is often full of unkind words, silence on the telephone, gifts which are necessary, recompense to the love of experience, to a kind of, in a way, unrequited love. You're just giving your own. You're loving your own experience.
REHMAnd what comes to my mind as I read this poem was an open heartedness.
COLLINSOpen, yes, that's very, very accurate. You know, now that I am the professor, I can mention that Wordsworth talks a lot about this. He calls it a wise passivity. In other words, if you're not projecting yourself onto reality and figuring out how you're going to relate to it, if you just open your mind and heart, lots of things will rush in. Experience will rush in.
COLLINSI think people who meditate are just people who have quiet times in their lives to look at clouds or look at water. These are professional activities of the poet, of course, but other people find time to do this. Annie Dillard is a wonderful person to talk about walking into nature without expectations, without thinking, okay, nature, give me some nature, you know.
COLLINSStart the dance. She said nature is a now-you-see it and now-you-don't kind of thing. You have to spend time there and you might get lucky and see, you know, a great heron take off or something. So it compares, the poem compares, romantic love with its potential instability and tempestuousness and clash of personalities with this quieter love of experience, love of the world.
REHMAnd yet the title, once one finishes the poem, the title jerks me back and I think, aimless? That's not aimless, it's awareness. It's open. It may not be person-centered...
REHM...which is how we normally think of love, but it's not aimless.
COLLINSI guess, by aimless, I meant it's without intention. You know, it doesn't have a purpose the way, in a personal relationship, you know, often gestures are somewhat calculated because here one is, I don't want to get into trouble here. One is aware of the response of the other person and there is often, you know, you can call it a courtesy. You can call it tiptoeing around certain issues, but there's a sense that your actions and your words will have consequences.
REHMYou obviously take joy in teaching poetry. Did someone teach you poetry?
COLLINSWell, lots of people taught me poetry, but they weren't really people I encountered in the classroom. I've never taken a poetry workshop myself. I sort of agree with my friend and the great poet, Kay Ryan, who said that she's never taken a workshop either and she said that doing so would, to her, mean an invasion of privacy.
REHMHah, and do you feel that same way?
COLLINSI sort of do, too. I think when I was coming up, there just weren't -- the workshop phenomenon had not started. There were maybe two MFA programs in the country. Now there are well over 200. But my teachers were on the shelves of the library and those are the great teachers. The teachers of poetry are other poets.
REHMDo you recall the very first poem?
COLLINSI recall the first poem that made me jealous. It's a poem by John Donne and it's called "The Flea." It's a seduction. It's a humorous seduction poem. And when I read it in college, I could not believe that I didn't write it. I could not believe how it managed to be sexy and funny at the same time. I thought those two were in totally different compartments.
COLLINSBut it's a very sexy seduction poem and it's completely humorous. And that was the first poem that instilled me with an emotion that's very key, I think, to any creative life and that is envy.
REHMAnd a desire to somehow to emulate?
COLLINSYeah, exactly. It's jealousy that's moved. It moves you into emulation.
REHMBilly Collins, his new and selected poems are gathered in a book titled "Aimless Love." Short break here, your calls, more poetry when we come back.
REHMFormer U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is with me. He has a new collection. They're both new and selective poems. He's titled it "Aimless Love." Here's the first email which says -- it's from Erin in Santa Cruz -- and Erin says "You are loved, Mr. Collins, like the dead mouse at the door sipping broth. Your love of animals has always come through. Please tell us about your very own pets. Do you have a beloved cat or dog?"
COLLINSThat's good. She's committing an act of literature herself there. I'm actually in this uncomfortable position of being between dogs. I lost my dog a couple of years ago and I have -- as a result, I have a hole in my heart which needs to be filled by a dog. And I...
REHMWhat kind of a dog was it?
COLLINSThis dog was a female Australian Shepherd mix -- Collie, Australian Shepherd. And her name was Jeanine. Very lovely, obedient dog. And so she left a big hole there. And I just feel -- I'm going to fill it one of these days. I've been procrastinating because I get so busy with traveling and all of that.
COLLINSYeah, and I don't want a dog you could fit under an airplane seat.
COLLINSI want something a little bigger than that.
REHMMy dog weighs ten pounds and fits under that seat very well. And here's a Tweet. "Can you speak to the importance of reading poetry aloud?"
COLLINSWell, I think there's a -- there are two dimensions to poetry. I mean, it doesn't have to be read aloud. It's usually read quietly. But to hear a poet read can be an enhancing experience or sometimes not. I often -- when I've -- I've had the experience of going to a poetry reading of a poet who I really like and understanding his or her poetry in a completely different way. I mean, seeing that the poems are a lot more humorous than I thought they were and not so dark.
COLLINSBut voicing the poem out loud is one experience but I think when you're reading in silence you actually hear the poem in your head because the skull is like a little auditorium.
REHMThat's a lovely image of skull, a little auditorium. We do have a reading here and it goes back to 2010. I'd like you to hear this reading by a three-year-old.
SAMUEL CHELPKA"Litany" by Billy Collins. You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. You are the dew on the morning grass and the burning wheel of the sun. You are the white apron of the baker -- oh, oh-oh...
CHELPKA...and the marsh birds suddenly in flight. However you are not the wind in the orchard, the plums on the counter, or the house of cards. And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. There is just no way you are the pine-scented air. It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge, maybe even the pigeon on the general's head, but you are not even close to being the field of cornflowers at dusk. And a quick look in the mirror will show that you are neither the boots in the corner nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
CHELPKAAnd it might interest you to know, speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world, that I am the sound of rain on the roof. I also happen to be the shooting star, the evening paper blowing down an alley and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table. I am also the moon in the trees and the blind woman's tea cup. But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife. You are still the bread and the knife. You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and somehow the wine.
REHMOh, that child. That was three-year-old-Samuel Chelpka back in 2010 reciting your poem "Litany".
COLLINSHe was -- apparently he was barely three years old. He was within a month or two. And...
REHMAn extraordinary reader, reciter.
COLLINSHe's amazing. I mean, one of the lines in the poem is 'it might interest you to know' and he can't even get his little mouth around some of these words but he soldiers on. And I actually met him. We found him -- that he lives in Arizona with his parents, Samuel. And I met him when he was still three, maybe three-and-a-half or something. And he's a charming boy. He's now, I think, almost seven, who has this mimetic gift. His parents did not force him to memorize anything but he would watch -- I think he watched me on YouTube reciting this poem. And he watched it a number of times.
COLLINSAnd at some point his mother said, you've enjoyed watching this. And then he just performed it for her. She was quite amazed. But your listeners really need to see this on YouTube, if I can say that.
REHMOn YouTube. Absolutely.
COLLINSIf they just put in on YouTube, like, three-year-old recipes Billy Collins they'll see Samuel doing it. And it's quite a show.
REHMAnd I gather you then went on to read it with him.
COLLINSWell, he -- I gave a reading that night in Tucson. And when I got to introduce the poem "Litany", I stopped and I said, you know, someone recites that poem better than I do. And then they put on the screen Samuel doing the poem. And he was there with his parents and he had a little suit on. He was all dressed up. And he had fallen asleep during the reading in his mother's arms. But he was brought up to the stage at the end. And as I was taking a bow he walked onto the stage and we, you know, grabbed each other's hands and he took a bow. And it just wiped out the audience.
REHMOf course. It's wiping me out even as I hear you.
COLLINSIt was a great ending.
REHMThat is just so special. And speaking of three-year-olds, how about reading for us "Cheerios."
COLLINSOkay. This is a long stretch from three. Poem called "Cheerios." One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago, as I waited for my eggs and toast, I opened the Tribune only to discover that I was the same age as Cheerios. Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios, for today the newspaper announced was the 70th birthday of Cheerios, whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.
COLLINSAlready I could hear them whispering behind my stooped and threadbare back, why that dude's older than Cheerios, the way they used to say, why that's as old as the hills. Only the hills are much older than Cheerios or any American breakfast cereal. And more noble and enduring are the hills, I surmised, as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.
REHMHow did you feel about turning 70?
COLLINSWell, not good particularly. Until I was -- my spirits were lifted when someone told me that the 70s are now known as the last decade of middle age. So that optimism is carrying me into the 70s I think.
REHMBut you didn't feel good about it.
COLLINSWell, there are things that come along with 70 that are, you know, things tend to slow down. But I'm also just enjoying myself quite a bit. I mean, I was a very late starter in poetry. I didn't get a book published -- I wanted to be a poet since I was a child, or at least in kind of in early high school, but I didn't get a book published until I was over 40. And I didn't really get kind of on the rails of the poetry scene until I was maybe 50 or so. So it's really been the last 15 or 20 years that I've enjoyed some success and popularity as a poet, and enjoyed ending up in places such as "The Diane Rehm Show." So it's all come quite late in life, which I think is a good time for it to come.
REHMTell me about, if you recall, that very first poem that you wrote.
COLLINSWell, I have a basic memory of writing the poem. I don't have the poem but I was -- I'm an only child and so I was in the back of my parents' car, which is -- if you're only children out there, you will recall that this is a great place to be because you control the entire backseat. You don't have anyone fighting over the...
REHMDon't have to share, nothing.
COLLINSRight. No sharing at all. It's all yours. You can look out both windows. But we were driving -- I'm from New York and we were driving up the eastside highway, the FDR along the East River there. And I saw a sailboat tacking up the East River. And apparently I had a literary reaction. I asked my mother for something to write on and a pencil and I wrote something down. I don't remember what I wrote exactly. I think it was something about the oddity of seeing a sailboat in a completely urban setting. So I had an early precocious sense of incongruity.
REHMAnd how old would you have been?
COLLINSOh, I probably was, I'm guessing maybe seven or eight, something like that. So it started early. And then, you know, maybe 35 years later I got a book published.
REHMBut did you continue writing poetry throughout school, throughout high school?
COLLINSYeah, I did. I was always writing poetry but I was -- as I said earlier, I mean, we learn by influence. We learn by imitation and emulation. And so I did start to emulate -- I was imitating beat poetry when I was in high school. When I got to graduate school, I was trying to imitate Wallace Stevens. I was really -- the imitations were so lame that they were really more like travesties of these writers' works.
REHMAnd you felt that personally.
COLLINSOnly later did I realize how bad they were. But I was learning, I think, as I -- through these periods of imitation. But then I came under the right influences, I think, at some point. And that's when I started writing poems that I thought I could claim as my own and not other people's.
REHMSo that the fact that you had no courses in poetry, you were not taught poetry, do you feel you can teach people poetry?
COLLINSWell, there are certain things you can't teach that are essential to poetry. Two things come to mind. You can't teach someone a verbal sense of rhythm. Either you have it or you don't, I think. And the other thing you can't convey is a taste for metaphor.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. We've got lots of callers waiting. First to Lisa in Houston, Texas. Hi, Lisa, you're on the air.
LISAHi, good morning. Thank you so much for taking my call.
LISASo I did have to first share, about ten years ago my AP English teacher Mr. McCave introduced us to Billy Collins' poetry. And I was able to connect with it on a level that I hadn't really been able to before. And so for that I wanted to first say, thank you so much. My question is, you know, you mentioned the presumptuousness of poets and their assumption that people care what they have to say. And it made me think of social media and the fact that there are so many of us just putting our emotions out into the world and assuming people care what we have to say about everyday mundane things.
LISAAnd I'm wondering if you think that maybe things like Twitter are becoming sort of a modern form of poetry.
COLLINSWell, if it is it's a very degraded form of poetry. Someone said recently that what we are suffering from in contemporary times is not an excess of information. We are suffering from an excess of insignificance. And it is that I think with media like Facebook, there is a kind of presumption that the world wants to know that you're going out to have a pizza. Not only that but people will then respond and say, oh pizza. I like pizza or good for you. What kind are you getting? This is just beyond me. I mean, there must be better things to do like studying Latin or something, besides indulging in that.
COLLINSAlthough with Twitter, I mean, if you have a certain -- you have a limited number of 140 characters, right.
COLLINSSo -- and poetry's been doing this for centuries. Any formal poetry, Haiku, 17 syllables.
REHMHaiku, of course.
COLLINSA Shakespearean sonnet is basically 140 beats, you know, ten lines of iambic pentameter. Did I count that right -- or something like that. So the idea of working in a limited space gives poetry its compression. So that's -- you know, poetically speaking, that's an ancient thing to do. But I'm not sure of the -- what I question is the content of a lot of those kinds of social media.
REHMHope that answers it. Let's go to Randi in Tallahassee, Fla. You're on the air.
RANDIThank you. Good morning. I wanted to share a story with you about poetry. I had recently a poetry-themed dinner party. And I asked each guest to bring a poem that was about food and bring a covered dish that somehow related to the poem and we would read all the poems at the table. And I chose Billy Collins' poem about the fish, the one where he goes to sort of a dreary restaurant by himself and he's looking at the fish and he's feeling very sorry for the fish lying dead on the plate.
RANDIAnd meanwhile the fish is having its own thoughts and feeling sorry for the diner because he's in this crumby, poorly-lit restaurant with the bad murals of Sicily. And I absolutely love that poem. And, by the way, the fish was delicious.
REHMAnd how was the dinner party itself?
RANDIIt was great. It was wonderful. We got a very wide variety of poems from the ridiculous to the sublime. And it was -- I think a good time was had by all.
REHMWhat a terrific idea. And do you have that poem with you?
REHMAfter a short break I'm going to ask you to read it. But we're almost to that point, 800-433-8850. More of your calls. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Billy Collins is with me, former U.S. poet laureate, author of many, many books of poetry. His latest collection of new and selected poems is titled, "Aimless Love." And, Billy Collins, just before the break, we heard from a lovely lady who used poetry as the theme for her dinner party. She herself used your poem, "Fish." Will you read it for us?
COLLINSSure. "The Fish. As soon as the elderly waiter placed before me the fish I had ordered, it began to stare up at me with its one flat iridescent eye. I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say, eating alone in this awful restaurant, bathed in such unkindly light, and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily. And I feel sorry for you, too, yanked from the sea and now lying dead next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh, I said back to the fish, as I raised my fork.
COLLINSAnd thus, my dinner, in an unfamiliar city, with its rivers and lighted bridges, was graced, not only with chilled wine and lemon slices, but with compassion and sorrow. Even after the waiter had removed the plate, with the head of the fish still staring and the barrel vault of its delicate bones terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley." So there's a form of aimless love, falling in love with a fish you're about to eat.
REHMOn the plate.
COLLINSOr at least having a conversation with it.
REHMBut, you know, the other thought I had, as our caller talked about her dinner party, was the fact that this was out in a group, a semi-public place, and your effort to bring poetry into public places like subways.
COLLINSI think it's a great idea to get poetry out of the libraries. I mean not to take the books out, but to see that poetry can have a life outside of the classroom, outside of the library. And I'm all for poems on busses and subways. I'm part of the Poetry Society of America that invented -- came along with the idea of poetry in motion. I wrote a poem for the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Station this year. And that's appearing on subway cars and on the back of Metro cars.
COLLINSSo I also think just having a dinner party where you have poetry is a great idea. And I've suggested it's a good idea to start a meeting, you know, start a board meeting or a radio station staff meeting by reading a poem. I think it would -- well, it depends on the poem, of course, but it would settle things down. It would give you something in common and it would make a nice starting place rather than, good morning.
REHMCalm the waters.
COLLINSCalm the waters.
REHMBut how successful do you think this project has been?
COLLINSThe one about poetry in public -- well, reasonably. I mean, it's in the subways and on the busses of New York City.
REHMWhat kinds of reactions have you had?
COLLINSWell, it think people are delighted to -- I mean, the poems are up -- they're short poems, of course. And they're up where the ads normally appear. And I think they're delighted to read a poem instead of an ad for lawyers who, you know, cover accident cases and denture holders and that kind of thing. And also if you see a poem on the subway or you hear a poem even on the radio, you don't have time to resist it. You don't, you know, you don't even know it's a poem yet.
COLLINSAnd so you can't -- it's sort of like ambushing the reader with a poem that comes out of an unexpected place.
REHMThere's a poem here titled, "The Golden Years," on page 104, that I found myself thinking lots about.
COLLINSOh, good. Well, I can just say it's based on the names for a lot of gated-communities and condo developments that are often named after animals. Names like Beaver Hollow and Deer Meadow and things like that.
COLLINSFox Run. And it struck me one day that these were the animals that were kind of banished from the land in order to build these houses. So that kind of melancholy undertone got the poem going. And it's a sonnet. I call it, "The Golden Years. All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge, where there are no pheasant to be seen, and last time I looked, no ridge. I could driver over to Quail Falls and spend the day there playing bridge, but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge. I know a widow at Fox Run, and another with a condo at Smoky Ledge. One of them smokes and neither can run, so I'll stick to the pledge I made to Midge. Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge, I ask in my kitchen, at Pheasant Ridge."
REHMAnd who is Midge?
COLLINSMidge is the late wife of -- it rhymes with ledge. So it would have been Barbara if the -- yeah.
REHMExactly. All right. Let's go right back to the phones. Let's go to Tony, in Tulsa, Ok. Hi there, you're on the air.
TONYGood morning, ma'am. And good morning, Mr. Collins. It was my pleasure to hear and see you at a reading in Tulsa a couple or three or four years ago. And you just read the poem I wanted you to read, "The Golden Years." The first time I heard that on the radio I thought, my God, he's been to Tulsa.
COLLINSVery good. Well, it's not just in Tulsa that this is happening, I assure you.
TONYI understand exactly, but I brought a couple people who didn't know who you were or a poet laureate or anything about poetry, but you made a couple of fans for yourself that night. It was very enjoyable and I really appreciate your work, sir.
COLLINSGood. Well, I thank you for increasing my fan base. It's my pleasure.
REHMThanks for calling, Tony.
REHMTell us about Barbara.
COLLINSBarbara? Who's Barbara?
REHMI thought you said Barbara.
COLLINSOh, well, I said the woman's name is Midge only because it rhymes with ledge…
COLLINSBut it could have been…
REHMOtherwise, it could have been Barbara.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Traverse City, Mich. Hi there, Ruth. Ruth, are you there?
RUTHYes, I am.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
RUTHOh, thank you for taking my call.
RUTHAnd my comments are to Billy Collins. I'm going to be 88 in a couple of weeks and so when he said that 70 was the new 50 I thought that was great. But I wanted to say that he reminds me so much of my own childhood. My father had a very wry Irish sense of humor and he taught me poetry with gestures. And in school we took elocution in the '30s, if you remember that term, and so I've always thought in metaphors. And I wrote lots of little poems and actually I think I won a scholarship for writing when I graduated from high school. But anyway, you've just stirred up a lot of memories. And I still write and keep diaries. And I think I'll keep on.
REHMI think that's a great idea. And, Ruth, in advance, I want to wish you a happy birthday.
RUTHThank you. Thank you.
REHMThanks for calling. Let's go now to Mariah, in Tampa, Fla. You're on the air.
MARIAHI was calling to ask a question for Mr. Collins. A little bit ago he had said that in order to teach poetry, he thinks that people should have an innate sense of verbal rhythm. How do you think you can develop that, if that's something that you feel you have?
COLLINSYeah, that's a good question. I've never seen anyone acquire that. I think just some people have it or some people don't, at least as far as my teaching goes. I mean clearly, I mean in my poetry I’m not using a metronomic rhythm, like iambic pentameter, but I'm trying to get at the rhythms of speech. Every one of my lines, if the poem is a decent poem has kind of a natural speech rhythm to it. And I just find that some people whose poetry I've looked at, they can't distinguish a kind of flat line from a rhythmically active line or a jumpy line like that. I think the analogy might be having a kind of tin ear in music or being tone deaf or something like that.
REHMOr not having the rhythm to dance.
COLLINSWell, a visit to any dance floor will show you that…
COLLINS…this gift is not equally distributed.
REHMAbsolutely. Thanks for calling. And now to Norma Jean, in Arlington, Va. Hi.
NORMA JEANHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
JEANBilly Collins has been a favorite of mine for a long time. And my favorite is, of course, "Barbie Doll at the A.A. Meeting." Garrison Keillor read it once years ago, but I'm a retired teacher now, but I substitute all the time. And I keep a Billy Collins book of poetry in my go-to-bag, because frequently I'm called to cover a class that there's no lesson plans for.
REHMBut I think you're giving Billy Collins credit for a poem he did not write.
COLLINSRight. Some other book must have slipped into your go-to-bag because that's not a poem I wrote. I think it's probably by Denise Duhamel who wrote a lot of poems about Barbie.
JEANYeah, but the others, I mean, you're always something handy and I never fail to be able to get kids started, at least. Like you said, that quiet time in the beginning or for almost any subject. And I really appreciate it. I speak for a lot of English teachers, I'm sure.
REHMThank you, Norma Jean. And to, let's see, John, in Houston, Texas. Are you there? Oh, dear. I think we lost him. Let's go to Jerrod, in Greensboro, N.C. You're on the air. Jerrod?
REHMGo right ahead.
JERRODHow do you put your emotions into your poems so well?
COLLINSWell, I'm not sure what I'm putting into the poems is always my emotions. One thing I can say is that it's always a good thing to write when you're not in an emotional state. Wordsworth has this famous definition of poetry, where he says it's the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, but then he adds recollected in tranquility. So I think when you're young -- and I did this when I was young -- one writes when one gets very emotional. But when you are writing you really need to concentrate on language. You need to concentrate on the lines that you're writing, the rhythm of the poem, the sound of it, where it's progressing, how it's developing. And all those things require concentration. And when you're emotional, you don't concentrate very well.
REHMOne last poem, "The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska."
COLLINS"The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska. Too bad you weren't here six months ago, was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska. You could have seen the astonishing spectacle of the Sandhill Cranes, thousands of them, feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River. There was no point in pointing out the impossibility of my being there then, because I happened to be somewhere else. So I nodded and put on a look of mild disappointment, if only to be part of the commiseration.
COLLINS"It was the same look I remember wearing about six months ago in Georgia, when I was told that I had just missed the spectacular annual outburst of azaleas, brilliant against the green backdrop of spring. And the same in Vermont, six months before that, when I arrived shortly after the magnificent foliage had gloriously peaked, Mother Nature, as she is called, having touched the hills with her many-colored brush, a phenomenon that occurs, like the others, around the same time every year when I am apparently off in another state, stuck in a motel lobby with a local paper and Styrofoam cup of coffee, busily missing God knows what."
REHMWhat inspired that poem?
COLLINSI can tell you, Howard Nemiroff, a previous poet laureate and a wonderful poet, made up a word. And the word is a verb and the verb is to azaleate.
COLLINSAnd to azaleate someone means to commiserate about some local phenomenon they just missed because they are leaving too early or they will miss because they arrived too late or maybe I have that backwards, but -- so I know I've azaleated people and I've been azaleated, but I'm going to stop doing that.
REHMOf course, I mean, what more can one say. I wish I had been there.
REHMI couldn't have been there, I was someplace else.
REHMWhat's next for you?
COLLINSI think of my life in poetry as basically one poem after another, I hope. I'm never conscious that I'm writing a book. My books are not really thematic like that. They have themes running through them that are basically formed by my obsessions or my preoccupations, but I hope, Diane, basically to be able to write a poem, maybe by the end of this week, just to go one poem at a time. And just see if I can continue to do that.
REHMAnd you never know what's going to inspire you, do you?
COLLINSNo. You never know. And you don't know if anything will ever inspire you. I mean…
COLLINSPoets tend to go back to zero very frequently. Right? If you're writing a novel, then it might take you a year, two or three years. And you wake up, as Hemingway said, and you get right -- you're in the middle of a scene and you continue to write. Poets, you can finish a lyric poem in an afternoon. You might revise it later, but you can produce a poem fairly quickly. And then you wake up the next morning and you have to restart yourself. You go back completely to a blank page again. So your last poem, might indeed by your last poem.
REHMI hope you write a poem today.
COLLINSThank you. I'll try.
REHMBilly Collins, he is the former U.S. poet laureate. His new book is titled, "Aimless Love." So good to see you again.
COLLINSGreat to see you, Diane. Thank you.
REHMThank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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