Ed Herman: Welcome to Poetry Lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars and educators, presented by poetryfoundation.org. In this program, we hear two-term poet laureate Billy Collins speaking at the Key West literary seminar. Often called the most popular poet in America, Billy Collins is known for his accessible and engaging style. He writes about every day moments, objects and scenes, and about reading and writing and poetry itself. He’s managed the rare feat of gaining respect from a large audience of general readers and literary insiders alike. Billy Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. After earning his PhD from the University of California Riverside, he cofounded The Atlantic Review with Michael Shannon. It was Collins’ fourth book, Questions about Angles, published in 1991 that brought him national attention. Since then, he’s written several best selling books of poetry, performed at sold out readings across the country, and appeared frequently on National Public Radio. As poet laureate, Collins created Poetry 180, an anthology for teaching poetry in high schools. The program is available for free online.
The Key West literary seminar was founded in 1983, and is dedicated to the celebration of the written word and the support of American writers. Each January, the seminar hosts an international gathering of readers and writers in Key West, Florida. In 2010, Billy Collins gave this talk entitled, “Dear Reader”. In it, he reads from his own and other poems, and explores the intimacy created in some poems between writer and reader. Here is Billy Collins.
Billy Collins: You notice in the program my appearance has a title, “Dear Reader”. I was asked not just to read poems, but to present a kind of meditation on this ghostly figure that we all seem to imagine as we write. But I start with an anecdote that always stuck with me. A friend of mine was walking along Madison Avenue let’s say, with The New Yorker writer Roger Angle, one of the great sports writers of America; the baseball season never really ends until you read his round up of it. It’s like they say, the game never ends until the fat lady sings the song. I don’t know, I’ve never seen a fat lady sing a song at the end of any game, but the baseball season doesn’t end until you read Roger Angle’s round up of it. Someone recognized Angle and stopped him, and began to just flatter him about his writing and tell him what a great writer he was. My friend and Angle continued to talk, and they walked about a block, and Angle said to my friend, that’s what it’s all about. He said, what do you mean? He said, that’s what’s writing is all about. He said what? He said, the love of strangers. Which is a sort of neurosis. Most people are satisfied by the love of the people around them, although that love tends to be insufficient most times. Whereas writers seem to court the love of total strangers. I am probably more guilty than anybody.
I tend to begin each of my books with a prefatory poem that’s actually addressed to the reader, and it’s my way of acknowledging the presence of the reader. i think as I’m reading contemporary poetry, they tend to fall into two categories for me, which are sort of undefinable, but in one category I feel that the poet is aware of my presence, and in the other I feel that an act of typewriting or someone is committing an act of literature oblivious to my participation in it. You might call these two kinds dogs and cats. Dogs are really interested in people as you know, whereas cats are more self-reverential as you know. I think of Maxine’s lovely poem about her dog Virgil. But I think of the poem as a social encounter. Borges said the flavor lies not in the fruit but in it’s contact with the palette. So the poem exists not in a set of typed letters in a book, but it is completed in the mind of the reader. So let me read one of these prefatory poems. It has an epigraph from Yeats who said in his rather ascendency or equestrian attitude toward life, he says “A poet never speaks directly as to someone with the breakfast table”. And this poem takes issue with that chilliness.
It’s called “A Portrait Of The Reader With A Bowl Of Cereal”
This morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun italicizing
the breakfast things,
the side of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries.
As usual I haven’t a word to say,
so we sit here in a pool of silence,
beneath the roof and the bright sky,
me wearing a sweatshirt or robe,
There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea.
So I look out the window at a bird.
I stare right through you at the wall.
or I read the paper, its calamitous news
rotating in a drum of print.
But some mornings the tea leaves
of a dream will be stuck
to the china slope of my memory
and a little door will open in the air—
then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.
Thank you. This is another poem which is shamelessly courting the attention of readers. It’s simply called “You, Reader”.
I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you,
that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen
the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl.
Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen-- it was just a matter of time
before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.
Plus, nothing happened that morning--
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside--
and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.
I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another
like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time--
me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.
So I guess you could describe my relationship to the reader as a kind of co-dependency, or it’s a dependency in which I hope that the co- part is being added by the reader. It’s sort of absurd to say you write for a reader, because as you’re composing a poem, even you haven’t read it yet. It’s not done, so how can you envision a reader. But I have a sense that as I’m composing, that I kind of go back and forth from being writer to reader to writer to reader. If I write a stanza or a sentence or some unit, I think I just instinctively go back and read that as if I were somebody else, not me. I think a lot of the poems I don’t enjoy reading are written by people who have a really hard time pretending to be anyone but themselves. It’s that kind of checking the self-expressive urges of oneself against a more objective fellow who picks up a book in a bookstore in Minnesota and there’s your poem, and who is that person? If you’ve been to Catholic school, your guardian angle is probably the closest thing to a reader, or at least it provides you with a rather benign sense of who that reader might be. But we were talking … many of the discussions and panels here revolved around the idea of form. Form of course is sociable. Form is what includes the reader. Readers, I don’t think readers of poetry come to poetry because they’re interested in the poet, they come there because they’re interested in poetry. When I talk to people in workshops, I tell them that no one cares about you, basically. That self-expression is wildly overrated, that people care about poetry. So if in your poem, you can present the illusion that you’re more interested in poetry than you are in yourself, which is an illusion or a lie, then there’s a way to make contact with the reader. And what gives readers pleasure is that huge word, form, which can be … And i would make the case also for so called free verse for having formal properties, they’re just differently construed. So I want the companionship of a reader, and I think as I was reading, as a student, reading Shakespeare and John Dunne and Herbert, I never felt like they were talking to me. I felt like I was visiting a shrine. That these poems were shrines that thousands of people had visited before, and I was showing up with my crutches, hoping to be saved (LAUGHING). Until I read Whitman, and Whitman gave me this chill because he seemed to be not only aware of my existence, but aware of what I was doing that way. The great passage in the “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, where he says “As I stood here you will stand here” … I don’t have the lines obviously, but as you see the water running and seagulls passing, you will see them, I have seen them, I know you’re there. It’s very chilling to have that kind of intimacy. I think that’s something I’ve tried to bring into my poetry. Most of my poems don’t have other people in them. There are very few, there are no uncles. It’s a very low occupancy. (LAUGHING). You know they have those signs in public buildings, maximum occupancy 400 or whatever. I think in a lyric poem the maximum occupancy is two; me and the reader. The fewer people you have in your poem, the more you can be alone with the reader, and I want to be completely alone with the reader. But at the same time, I want to get ahead of the reader. I think I want to start on the same foot as the reader, but I want the poem to get a little ahead of me and therefore a little ahead of the reader. Let me read a poem. It’s a poem in which I try to achieve some kind of direct intimacy with an imagined self. It’s called “Directions”. I actually saw it in a museum in Dublin, I saw a book of poems open under a glass case and it was giving directions. I thought I'd just steal that whole idea. We all know that’s a form … If someone asks you how to get to this theatre, you’ll ask them how much they know. Do you know where Devale street is? And then at some point, their knowledge trails off and your knowledge kicks in.
You know the brick path in back of the house,
the one you see from the kitchen window,
the one that bends around the far end of the garden
where all the yellow primroses are?
And you know how if you leave the path
and walk up into the woods you come
to a heap of rocks, probably pushed
down during the horrors of the Ice Age,
and a grove of tall hemlocks, dark green now
against the light-brown fallen leaves?
And farther on, you know
the small footbridge with the broken railing
and if you go beyond that you arrive
at the bottom of that sheep’s head hill?
Well, if you start climbing, and you
might have to grab hold of a sapling
when the going gets steep,
you will eventually come to a long stone
ridge with a border of pine trees
which is as high as you can go
and a good enough place to stop.
The best time is late afternoon
when the sun strobes through
the columns of trees as you are hiking up,
and when you find an agreeable rock
to sit on, you will be able to see
the light pouring down into the woods
and breaking into the shapes and tones
of things and you will hear nothing
but a sprig of birdsong or the leafy
falling of a cone or nut through the trees,
and if this is your day you might even
spot a hare or feel the wing-beats of geese
driving overhead toward some destination.
But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.
Still, let me know before you set out.
Come knock on my door
and I will walk with you as far as the garden
with one hand on your shoulder.
I will even watch after you and not turn back
to the house until you disappear
into the crowd of maple and ash,
heading up toward the hill,
piercing the ground with your stick
Thank you. I also want to be … I think to go with that cat and dog analogy a little further, we’re probably part cat and part dog if you can imagine such a hideous creature. I think in some cases my poems start out being dog like and end up being cat like. It begins as a sort of social encounter, but I end up just wanting to rub against the chair and forget the reader. I don’t want to be a completely reliable person either. I’d rather be slightly untrustworthy. This is a poem called “Fishing On The Susquehanna in July”.
I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.
I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,
a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.
There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,
rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.
But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia
when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend
under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna
sitting in a small, green
holding the thin whip of a pole.
That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.
Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,
even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.
I think it’s Mark Strands image that you don’t want to play secretary to yourself. You don’t want to just take your thoughts and feelings and take dictation. You want the pen to be an instrument of discovery not just a recording device. In that sense, every poem is sort of a journey toward some destination that, to quote somebody else earlier yesterday, that is sort of unforeseeable but inevitable. There’s a kind of inevitability about the discovery. I suppose that rabbit, the hare in that painting, was the whole reason for that poem. I didn’t envision that in the beginning, but that’s what the poem ended up traveling to in it’s own cat-like way. I’ll read another poem that maybe has a bit of that kind of travel in it. It’s a poem called “The Trouble With Poetry”. It’s not that long a poem, don’t worry. It doesn’t talk about all the trouble with poetry, just some of the trouble with poetry.
The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night --
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky --
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti --
to be perfectly honest for a moment --
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.
So I think the last thing on my mind when I started that poem was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but when he appeared I was just so relieved that he was providing me with a way to stop writing that poem, a way to end it. Because when we study poetry, we say this poem is about grief and this poem is about celebration, but when you’re writing a poem, it’s just about how to end it. How do you stop? How do you come to a point where you don’t want to say anything more and no one wants to hear anything more? This is a poem where I try to create a confidentiality with the reader, imparting in fact to the reader the secrets of poetic composition. It’s called “Purity”.
My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I got about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants and a pot of cold tea.
Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide if off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.
Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.
Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.
I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.
In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.
I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.
After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.
Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.
Thank you. I’ll just read one more poem. It’s a little poem called “Envoy”, it’s trying to be part of that traditional, Medieval I think in origin, where the author at the end of his book bids goodbye to his book. At the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida he says “go little book, go my tragedy” and sends his book off into the world.
Go, little book,
out of this house and into the world.
carriage made of paper rolling toward town
bearing a single passenger
beyond the reach of this jittery pen
and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.
It is time to decamp,
put on a jacket and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes,
bound to be held in foreign hands.
So off you go, infants of the brain,
with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:
stay out as late as you like,
don't bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can.
Ed Herman: That was Billy Collins speaking at the Key West literary seminar on January 9th 2010. You can learn more about the seminar at KWLS.org. Collins’ recent books include The Trouble With Poetry and Ballistics. He also edited Bright Wings, an illustrated anthology of poems about birds, published in 2009. You can read more about Billy Collins and many of his poems at poetryfoundation.org. You’ll also find many other articles about poets and poetry, an online archive of more than 9,000 poems, and other audio programs to download. I’m Ed Herman. Thanks for listening to Poetry Lectures from poetryfoundation.org.