Billy Collins

Billy Collins
U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003)
Dept. of English, Lehman College, CUNY

Poetry Colloquium
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series
Terrace Room, Building 460,
Room 426, Stanford University
Tuesday, November 11, 2003,
11 am-12:15 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Every chair in the Terrace Room was filled as Billy Collins began his Poetry Colloquium. Prof. Eavand Boland told the gathering that there will be refreshment after the talk. Collins said, "I feel I'm the barrier between you and the refreshment." My notes are below with web links. References denoted in [brackets] are my additions.

I think Ezra Pound said that a professor talks for an hour.
There are two ways to set down the definition of poetry—
by means of prose or by means of poetry Archibald MacLeish's poem Ars Poetica [1926]:
"A poem should not mean/But be."
synthesis of "hibiscus and biscuits"— cookie
high and rare and ordinary
combine high and low
put them together by sound— musicality of a line
Dante says poetry is that which gives us pleasure
Thomas Carlyle: "poetry is musical thought" [Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)]
Thomas Hardy: "Poetry is emotion put into measure."
          ["The emotion must come by nature,
          but the measure can be acquired by art." Source]
Kenneth Burke: "dancing of an attitude" [ The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941)]
          (conceptual and attitudinal)

Poetry can do two things at the same time.
W. H. Auden: "Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings"
The poet can say one thing at a time— layered sense of poetry
reader's participation is critical
fluidity of its meaning, contrary ways of presenting itself
Two kinds of writing: fixed & fluid
(1) Writing whose meaning can be determinable like cookbooks or journalism
      Add one cup of sugar— you don't say "What's she getting at?" (laughter)
(2) Writing whose meaning are indeterminable like poetry
      In poetry, "sugar" is debatable
      Students are frustrated because poetry is fluid. If you're an English major, that's the pleasure of poetry.
It's not strapped down like other forms of writing.
I wrote a poem "Poetry"
definition of poetry— distinguishing it from other forms:

Call it a field where animals
who were forgotten by the Ark
come to graze over the evening clouds.

Or a cistern where the rain that fell
before history trickles over a concrete lip.

However you see it,
this is no place to set up
the three-legged easel of realism

or make a reader climb
over the many fences of a plot.

Let the portly novelist
with his noisy typewriter
describe the city where Francine was born,

how Albert read the paper on the train,
how curtains were blowing in the bedroom.

Let the playwright with her torn caridgan
and a dog curled on the rug
move the characters

from the wings to the stage
to face the many-eyed darkness of the house.

Poetry is no place for that.
We have enough to do
complaining about the price of tobacco,

passing the dripping ladle,
and singing songs to a bird in a cage.

We are busy doing nothing—
and all we need for that is an afternoon,
a rowboat under a blue sky,

and maybe a man fishing from a stone bridge,
or, better still, nobody on that bridge at all.

[from Billy Collins, Nine Horses (2002)]

Hocus pocus of poetry
suddenness— apparition quality
novelist is like a boarder in your house
poet is someone who comes and disappears
poet is like the masked man with flights & journeys


Q&A Session:

Q: What about the narrative poem?
A: Poetry is so vast. It's like sports— badminton and football with linebackers.
     Usually when we speak of poetry, it's the lyric poem.
     Stephen Dobyns writes short narrative poems.
     Now the narrative poem has been replaced by the Outburst.
     Poems were used historically as a mnemonic device.
     alliterations, tropes, vital information stored
     How many days in October? in August?
     We have a jingle to remind us—
     "Thirty days hath September
     April, June, and November

Q: Is the Outburst— confessional poetry?
A: The term is 40 years old. Poets like Lowell and Anne Sexton
     had something to confess, exciting life to reveal.
     Plath and Berryman too had much to confess.
     All poetry is a mating call—
     to get attention without embarrassment.
     To me, poetry is an extension of the diary.
     Girls keep diaries— closed their doors and had feelings
     while boys were outside beating each other up.
     The lock of a diary had the shape of a heart.
     Dear Diary— self-constructive & reflective
     Poetry is writing about feelings.
     Poetry has form & gives pleasure.
     When Shakespeare wrote King Lear,
     it gave him lots of fun and pleasure.
     How Glouchester is looking down from the cliff? [King Lear, IV:6]
     That's the tension of literature.
     That's why television is not satisfying—
     happy content, happy form.
     That's why poetry is more satisfying.

Q: Who are the poets that inspired you?
A: Yeats. Everything from Looney Tunes
     Didn't like Disney.
     In Looney Tunes, anything can happen—
     pull a lawn mower from your pants.
     My mother in Canada had lots of poems.
     My mother died at age 95.
     I was a Beatnik— liked Ferlinghetti & Ginsberg;
     went through brooding Romantic genius period.
     In Graduate school— I liked Wallace Stevens
     and tried to write fake Stevens poems.
     I like Richard Brautigan— he's disparaged now
     I'm still reading. I read poets who make me jealous—
     Envy— that's how I want to be influenced.
     Listen to jazz musicians— do things I can't do.
     Jorie Graham is admirable. But I don't want to write like her.
     Charles Simic makes me steam. I want to write like him.
     Wallace Stevens "Sunday Morning"
     ["Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
     Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair"]
     I wrote "Monday Morning" try to sound like Stevens
     "The complaceny of this student"
     to pull an A or care

Q: Having been a Poet Laureate, what are your thoughts?
A: Stevens, Hart, Eliot—
     Early 20th century audience were driven.
     Poetry is difficult because people don't read
     it anymore. I'm at the middle of the spectrum—      What cards to turn over, which to face down.
     All turned down— then there's no game.
     Undo the human mystery
     Poem is like an eye chart
     Everyone can see the big E
     but at some point there is a blur
     there's mysteriousness at the end.
     Poem starts ambiguous
     and ends with disorientation.
     Accessible is the #1 word in poetry
     accessibility means readable—
     for readers to enter the poem
     but close the door
     psychic drama in line one is too rude
     I don't read poetry to learn about you.
     If you give me language pleasure
     then I'm seduced into caring.

Q: Why people disparage your poems and those of Mary Oliver?
     because you're dumb?
A: Has to do with the audience.

Q: I heard this on Lehrer's News Hour about
     getting a poem read each day in school.
A: That's Poetry 180
     Pinsky, Hass, Dove had poetry initiatives
     when they were Poet Laureates
     I focused on high schools
     Teachers were still reading Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow"
     and Eliot's "Prufrock". So I compiled contemporary poems
     to be read over the PA system each morning—
     Here's a poem for today that didn't need teacher's intervention.
     Poems that give pleasure at the first reading.
     Now the website Poetry 180 gets a million hits a month.
     They created a channel on Delta Airlines— poetry & jazz fillers
     One can listen to love poems, poems about animals. I just got
     an email from a woman flying from Istanbul listening to poetry.

Q: What's the website's URL?
A: It's linked on and I update the site occasionally.

Q: (Eavand Boland) American poet laureates have done so much.
     British poet laureates are condemned to write
     poems about the royal family.
A: Before recording devices, writing poems about the wedding of a duchess
     was the only way of preserving the occasion for history.
     British laureates have a ten-year tenure.
     We should go to lifetime. We've had 19 poet laureates [12 since Robert Penn Warren, 1986].
     Tennyson was the British Poet Laureate for 47 years [42 years from 1850-1892].

Q: I heard the poetry channel and jazz on my flight.
A: Did you find it in their In-Flight magazine?
     Two people who sell to the airline channels approached me to do this.

Q: Who had the idea of putting poetry in hotels?
A: Joseph Brodsky said "We should have poetry in supermarkets and motels."

Q: I share your poems to my high school students. They ask me, "Did he write that?
     Is it that effortless like a basketball lay-up?"
A: I usually write my poems in a single sitting— 20 minutes or an hour.
     not so much mosaic, but a journey
     my poem creates its own conclusion, destination.
     Have a sense of beginning, middle, end.
     Then I make adjustments for cadence, sound.
     Try to write good lines.
     One definition of Henry Taylor
     all poetry... width on a page
     it turns back and creates shape.
     Poetry displaces silence
     recurrence on itself
     creates more tension
     Prose is like water
     Poetry is like sculpture.

Q: Could you read your poem "Sonnet"?
A: You know Petrarch wrote love sonnets to Laura.
     All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
     and after this one just a dozen
     to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
     then only ten more left like rows of beans.
     How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
     and insist the iambic bongos must be played
     and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
     one for every station of the cross.
     But hang on here wile we make the turn
     into the final six where all will be resolved,
     where longing and heartache will find an end,
     where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
     take off those crazy medieval tights,
     blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.


Poetry Books by Billy Collins: (at

Poetry 180: a turning back to poetry
Random House, New York (2003)
Nine Horses
Random House, New York (2002)
Sailing Alone Around the Room:
New and Selected Poems

Random House, New York (2001)
Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes
Picador, London (2000)
Picnic, Lightning
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh (1998)
The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh (1995)
The Apple That Astonished Paris
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville (1988)
Questions About Angels: Poems
Quill/William Morrow, New York (1991)
The Best Cigarette (Audio CD)
Cielo Publishing (1997)

Web Links to Billy Collins
Billy Collins: The Academy of American Poets
  (Short Bio & Web Links to Collins' poetry)
Billy Collins: The English Department Faculty
  (Faculty Page at Lehman College, CUNY)
Poet Laureate Billy Collins: Lehman College
  (By Ari McKenna, Education Update Online, Jan. 2002)
Billy Collins Opens "The Poets of CUNY" At Metropolitan Museum
  (Oct. 15, 2002; Collins Poem: "The Names")
Contemporary Poetry: Billy Collins
  (Seven Collins poems)
The Cortland Review: Billy Collins
  (The Poet and The Poem with Grace Cavalieri)
Big Snap: Billy Collins
  (Poet, Poems, Gossip, Books
Big Snap: Billy Collins
  (Links to articles & interviews with Billy Collins)
Billy Collins: The Steven Barclay Agency
  (Lectures, Readings, Bookings)
You Are Not the Pine-Scented Air, O.K.?
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Nine Horses]
  (By Mary Jo Salter, NY Times, Oct. 20, 2002)
BOOKS: A Poet's Life, Revealed in the Details
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room]
  (By RICHARD EDER, NY Times, Oct. 8, 2001)
  [Book review of Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room]
  (By Dwight Garner NY Times, Sept. 23, 2001)
On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock
  (By BRUCE WEBER, NY Times, Dec. 19, 1999)
With Humor, Poet Lures Fans to the Serious
  (By Cynthia Magriel Wetzler, NY Times, Nov. 30, 1997)
Billy Collins: Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
  (By Robert Darling, Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Nov. 2001)
Silent stampede leads us to pleasurable side streets
  (By Dionisio Martinez, Miami Herald, Oct. 20, 2002)
Undressing Billy Collins
  (By Michelle Mairesse)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (11-11-2003)