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Billy Collins on 'The Trouble with Poetry'

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Billy Collins on 'The Trouble with Poetry'

Billy Collins on 'The Trouble with Poetry'

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Poet Billy Collins wonders whether there's a surfeit of poetry in the world. Yet verse begets verse in his new collection, "The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems." The former US poet laureate can go on at length about poetry's joys. He says that adult readers are rediscovering their passion for the art and, in so doing, returning to their youth.

Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Author, "The Trouble with Poetry"): Because poetry, like all of the other arts, is really originally a childhood pleasure. Children naturally love to count time; they love rhyming. What happens is adolescence takes over, and we go into a kind of tunnel where we're paralyzed by self-consciousness. So when I hear people reading poetry after a long absence from poetry, I think of them as reclaiming a kind of natural birthright almost.

LYDEN: Just because I think it's fun, and speaking of simply having fun, would you read "The Flock" from this new collection?

Mr. COLLINS: Of course. This is a fairly short poem. The poem bears a little epigraph, and it's the epigraph that really inspired the poem. It occurred in an article I was reading about the history of printing, and the quotation is: "It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep." The poem is called "Flock."

(Reading) `I can see them squeezed into the holding pen behind the stone building where the printing press is housed, all of them squirming around to find a little room and looking so much alike it would be nearly impossible to count them. And there is no telling which one will carry the news that the Lord is a shepherd, one of the few things they already know.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I love that poem. One of the things you're credited with, Billy Collins--and I think deservedly so--is having a lot of whimsy and putting a lot of fun into poetry. Is there something troubled with poetry? Is it considered by some readers to be too esoteric?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, a lot of it is. There's a lot of--the misconception is that you don't need to know anything to write poetry. I mean, one of the things you get when you say you're a poet is, `Oh, you're a poet? Really? Well, that's interesting because our daughter, Tiffany--she's 11--she writes poetry.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: And my revenge fantasy is that I ask this guy what he does, and he says, `Well, I'm an investment banker.' And I say, `Really? Because our son Timmy was playing with some change on the floor the other day. Such an interesting connection.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Maybe we can get them together--oh.

Mr. COLLINS: That's right, a play date, these two little geniuses.

LYDEN: But what would the world be without poetry? Do you know?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it would lack the history of human emotion. Poetry is really the only history, the single history, we have of the human heart, which stretches back thousands of years, and we'd miss that. And we'd certainly miss, I think, the sense of companionship that we get from reading poetry. Whether it's Latin poetry or Emily Dickinson, we see that there's really a very narrow band of human emotion that can be experienced, and it's re-experienced in delightfully new linguistic ways in each generation by poets.

LYDEN: Well, there's a theme in this collection, the theme of childhood. And I'd like, please, for you to read this poem, "Boy Shooting at a Statue."

Mr. COLLINS: I'd be happy to.

"Boy Shooting at a Statue." (Reading) `It was late afternoon, the beginning of winter, a light snow, and I was the only one in the small park to witness the lone boy running in circles around the base of a bronze statue. I could not read the carved name of the statesman who loomed above, one hand on his cold hip, but as the boy ran, head down, he would point a finger at the statue and pull an imaginary trigger, imitating the sounds of rapid gunfire. Evening thickened, the mercury sank, but the boy kept running in the circle of his footprints in the snow, shooting blindly into the air. "History will never find a way to end," I thought, as they left the park by the north gate and walked slowly home, returning to the station of my desk, where the sheets of paper I wrote on were like pieces of glass, through which I could see hundreds of dark birds circling in the sky below.'

LYDEN: I think what I love about this poem is it takes me right to the heart of what it is that a poet does, where the sheet of paper becomes the pane of glass the poet's looking out of. In other words, you're doing that essential task of experiencing and then conveying emotion. But are we right in detecting a sort of a common element in this collection in which you are thinking about the passage of time?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, that's the major chord of all poetry. The theme of poetry is death. I tell people, `If you're majoring in English, you're majoring in death.' The oldest theme in poetry is `carpe diem,' and the reason you would carpe the diem is that you don't have too many diems left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: But poetry always looks at life through this lens of mortality, and looking at it through that lens tends to italicize life. And the result provides one of--the second greatest theme in poetry perhaps, and that's gratitude, gratitude for being alive.

LYDEN: New York state poet laureate and former US poet laureate Billy Collins. His latest collection is called "The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems."

Bye now, and thanks.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you. Goodbye.

LYDEN: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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