Poet Billy Collins talks about the need to take poetry out of imaginary interpretations

Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States (2001) talks on TED talks and is interviewed on National Public Radio. On TED talks he shares with us his experience of letting his poetry be animated. On the radio he talks of whether creativity has an end and a beginning. Together they tell a story that is almost as charming as verse.

Billy Collins says in his fifteen minute talk titled “Everyday Moments caught in Time” that even though he felt poetry could stand alone and that you did not need the picture of a cow to illustrate the word, he relented to the experiment of animating his poems, if only to take “poetry off the shelf.”

Collins explains how with emphasis on interpretation the pleasures of poetry are diminished in the classrooms. “...to the detriment of some of the other less teachable, maybe even more obvious or more bodily pleasures that poetry offers. But that mental and cerebral pleasure seems to be so dominant that it leaves out other pleasures. And the other pleasures are not so teachable, so they don't require the intervention of a teacher. The pleasure of rhythm, metaphor, imaginative travel......the emphasis tends to be on what does the poem mean? And at some point in my teaching, I realised that, when I'm writing a poem, that's the last thing I'm thinking about...” says the poet and goes on to read a poem titled Budapest where he sketches the creative process.

“Writing is not actually easy for me, but I like to pretend it flows...,” says Collins and answers to the inevitable question of what if the poem does not “come”? “Oh, the poets do the same thing – we'd go to the dry cleaner. I mean I don't believe in the writer's block... you can't be writing constantly because you'd be insane. So there must be periods of non-writing. And then it's just a matter of how do you view them? And I just view them as I'm waiting. Waiting for something to come along...I am not thinking that if I'm not writing, that means I'll never write...”

Collins goes on, “I don't want to make it sound too romantic but, I mean, it's a quite intense experience and there's – there's always the frustration about how will this end? My poems tend to be going somewhere and they end when they get there... and you need to know, of course, when to stop. There was a story about a kindergarten teacher. Her students produced the best art of any of the other teachers in the school. And they asked her, how come your students' paintings are so good? And she said, Well, it's because I know when to take them away from them.”

Collins reads some more of his poems titled “Some Days” and “Forgetfulness”. In the first he talks of how some days turn out to be what we call “our days” and some days we just have to toe the line. In “Forgetfulness”, beginning with forgetting the authors name and the title of the book and finally even the racy conclusion, Collins touches on the impermanence of life.

Of his poem, “The Country”, Collins says it was born out of his visits to his friend's house. “If he taught me how to deer hunt or fish for trout, I taught him what I knew back in New York...to smoke and drink...that way we exchanged our lores….” He follows up this poem with one called “The Dead” where he is filled with discomfiture to think that once you are dead you have to watch your friends gathered at your funeral...with gratitude!

While it is interesting to watch, hear and see animated poetry, the last poem he reads out (it has not been animated) takes the cake. Addressed to his favourite 17-year-old, he sounds like a typical grandfather exasperated by his granddaughter's charm and laziness.

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