Billy Collins On How To Become A Poet, And Why Poetry Can Be A Game
For many NPR fans, Billy Collins needs no introduction. The former Poet Laureate is widely acknowledged as America's most popular poet, regularly popping up on national best-seller lists (terra incognita for most poets, even beloved ones).
So when Collins sat down with NPR for a reading on Facebook Live, we didn't have to do much work to drum up an audience. The comments were quickly filled with his longtime fans.
The crowd was clearly familiar with Collins' poetry, which is marked by observation, straightforward language and humor. But they peppered the poet with questions about the stuff even die-hard fans don't get to see: the work that went into the words. (After all, Collins fans know a poem doesn't just happen ... suddenly.)
One fan asked: How would someone who wants to become a poet get started?
Reading, Collins answered — lots and lots of reading. He cited Malcolm Gladwell's famous "10,000 hours" benchmark as a good standard.
"It's such dull advice. There's no key to it," he said. "It really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry. And I mean not just stuff you find in magazines but if you really want to be trained in poetry you need to read Milton — you need to read Paradise Lost. You need to read Wordsworth — you need to read Wordsworth's 'Prelude.'"
"That's if you want to take it seriously. If you don't want to take it seriously, you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself," he laughed. "No one's gonna read it with any pleasure because ... you haven't paid attention to what happened in the past."
Another commenter asked about the poems that Collins' own fans never get to read — the rejects.
"Usually I know enough not to finish those," he said. "They announce themselves as failures early on, four or five or six lines in. They're just not cooperating with me – they're not showing any signs of wanting to go anywhere, or it was just a bad idea to start with, you know, like you just invited the wrong person to the party but it's too late. But in the case of writing a poem the waste basket ... the writer's best friend ... is full of false starts.
"When I was a younger poet I would do what Frost said you can't do, which is fret a poem into being ... and I gave up on that a long time ago. If a poem isn't working, if it doesn't feel right, I just let it go and get on with the next thing, which could be writing another poem or making more toast."
But time spent on poems destined for the trash heap isn't always time wasted.
"If I'm writing for a while and I'm writing maybe a failure and another failure ... a poem will come, often a little poem," he said. "It has nothing to do with what I've written but it would not have occurred had I not been failing."
And then there was a very specific request: for the genesis of one poem in particular, "Cosmology" — featuring the entire universe balancing on Keith Richards' head.
You can hear Collins read the poem, and discuss its backstory, below.
"In many of these poems, quite frankly, there's a game being played, which the reader can play also," he said. "You can write a contra-poem to that in which the universe is being supported on the head of Joan of Arc or Barack Obama or your sister Deirdre, I mean, anybody, and you could play with that.
"So unlike some poets I'm not really pouring out my misery here," he said. "I'm really involved in some playful game with language. It's a serious game, in some ways, but it's a game too."
Collins also talked about what it was like to hear other poets read theirwork. You can hear that part of the conversation below — and listen to readings of "Lucky Cat," "Friends," "This Little Piggy Went to Market" and "Envoy" at the top of the page.
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