March 11, 2010

Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins Discusses His Craft

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Famed poet Billy Collins had a packed auditorium in Rockefeller Hall last night sitting on his every word with a reading of Ballistics –– his latest poetry collection –– as well as some of his earlier works.

After a silence from the audience when he finished reading a poem, Collins said, “I’m not too sure about that one either,”which elicited laughter and was characteristic of the lighthearted attitude that marked the whole evening.

He peppered the pauses between poems with advice for the audience.

“If you major in English, you’re majoring in death. Anytime is good to write about death — like Martha Stewart says, ‘It’s good for holiday time or anytime!’”Collins said.

He also advised that students of poetry should “give up this idea of originality and become swayed by older poets.”

Prof. Alice Fulton, English, introduced Collins as both the “poet of the ordinary”and the “poet of the imagination.”She said that his readers are “so lucky to have his poetry as a counterlucky to have his poetry as a counterweight to pomposity and despair” and described his poems as “ripe with ghosts” as they fit into a larger historical narrative of poetry. Collins, however, later poked fun at Fulton, telling the audience that no one would ever publish a collection of her introductions.

Collins waxed philosophical on the state of modern poetry and derided the modern trend towards self-expression.

“The trouble with poetry is its availability: you can pick up a 29-cent pen and express yourself. Self-expression is overrated,” he said. “If I were Emperor of Poetry, I would make everyone learn to play the trumpet before they could write poetry, just to make it difficult.”

In addition to social commentary, Collins also offered more tangible advice for the would-be poets in the audience.

“Ambiguity can be a texturing device, a kind of richness,” he said, referring to the best way to address the indirect nature of some of his poems.

He quipped that “poetry is an interruption of silence … [while] prose [is] a continuation of noise.”

When Collins discussed who influenced him most to pursue poetry, he surprised audience members by citing the Looney Tunes.

“It introduced me to a pliable, changing world…where the character can pull a lawnmower out of his pants or something, and he’s not even wearing pants!”

Collins’ readings were well-received by audience members.

“I thought it was fantastic. I came in knowing nothing about him as a poet. I was surprised to find out how humorous his poems are, as that’s rare for a poet. Some of his poems were funny,” said Alyssa Bachmann ’11.

“He was wonderful. He really did put the fun in profundity. He’s one of the only poets who translates that well to being read aloud. He reads very well,” said Louisa Thanhauser ’11.

Original Author: Emily Coon