As “Free Bird” is to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, so is “The Lanyard” to a Billy Collins reading. There were no lighters held aloft in Ira Allen Chapel last evening or bellowed requests (truth be told: there was one, though not quite a bellow), but the former U.S. Poet Laureate is as close to rock star status as a poet can get these days. And he did, indeed, read “The Lanyard” to the delight of the fans who filled the chapel on a warm October evening for the Vermont Humanities Council event done in collaboration with UVM.
In his introductory remarks, Major Jackon, fellow poet and professor of English, said he’d dubbed the visit, which included meeting with UVM classes earlier in the day, “The Billy Collins Cruise Ship.” The poet’s talk, reading (of his own work and others), and Q and A was a pleasure cruise, welcoming and accessible (though Collins is weary of that word, more on that later). A few snapshots:
Speaking of his first exposure to poetry in school, Collins noted it was a form written by “men who were dead, had white beards, and three names.” Having none of those may have been an initial barrier, but he soon found his way to the “sound of clean, contemporary poetry.” Collins suggested poetry should be taught chronologically backwards, beginning with “seductive” contemporary poems. “Chaucer is a terrible place to begin.”
Collins spoke about his Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry anthology and his goal to help people—young people, in particular—discover or rediscover the pleasure in poetry. He described the too familiar scene of a literature class where students have read a poem, then sit with eyes cast to the floor, terrified they will be asked to explain the work. In Poetry 180, Collins gathered what he calls “first bounce” poems, those that can be appreciated on an initial reading. His hope is that the poems are simply read aloud, not taught, in schools so poetry becomes part of the atmosphere. “I’m a great advocate for poetry in public places,” he said, “a line of poetry dragged behind an airplane as they sometimes do in Florida.” He even took his case to Cosmopolitan and delivered his message with the publication’s standard recipe: “7 Sources of Pleasure in Poetry.”
As for that “A” word, Collins said that “accessible” does not mean simple. Rather, it means that a poem has “a portal that is clear and interesting to the point of being seductive.” What happens when a reader steps through that portal and commits to reading the poem is another story.
Fielding a question on process, Collins said that he writes a poem in one sitting, wanting to follow it through and see where it goes. He writes in a notebook with a pen or pencil, continually rewriting as he revises multiple times. “It is more refining than revising,” he said. “You should always be taking away in revision, not adding.”
On becoming a writer: Collins said it is not really a matter of choice. He referenced John Updike’s thought that his becoming a writer was a case of “being swallowed by a hobby.” Collins said, “You don’t make a decision. That would be a rather unwise decision. It overtakes you.”
On becoming a poet, in particular: Collins said it was simply the highest calling of literature. He shared what he’d recently told a novelist friend: “Poetry is a bird. Prose is a potato.”