Tag Archives: Billy Collins

“That’s 400 years on the breasts. Think how boring that would be. At some point. 15 or 20 years in.”

Today was the second half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry.” (I wrote about the first half here.)

The bulk of the session was devoted to the kinds of “turns” a poem can take—that is, the developmental moments in a poem which turn our attention. In the first session, he had already talked about the importance of having these turning moments to propel a poem to its ending. He listed these as the types of turns a poet can employ:

  1. Logical or rhetorical turns: For example, in “To His Coy Mistress,” Marvel employs a three-part logical syllogism (major premise, minor premise, conclusion) and the turns are signaled by the words “but” and “therefore.”
  2. Turns in time or space: For example, in “Tintern Abbey” the poet falls into a reverie and remembers, and then when he comes back, the landscape is coloured and informed by his memories. Time and space are provisional in a poem, and we can take advantage of that.
  3. Turn from the abstract to the personal: For example, in “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” Eberhart tackles these really broad themes of morality and then in the final stanza turns to two specific soldiers he knew who had died, and it’s the personal details at the end which give the poem its power. Also, e.g. Vijay Seshadri’s “The Long Meadow” and Billy Collins’ “The Death of the Hat.”
  4. Reflexive poems which turn in on themselves: These poems develop a disproportionate interest in some aspect of themselves, eg. Billy Collins’ “Canada” with its obsession with Cherry Ames, or eg. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break,” in which the second stanza (all about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) is addressing the simile in the first line (“Like freak Texan sisters joined at the hip”), moving away from the first stanza’s discussion of his failed relationship to go inside the simile (as though, Collins said, walking into a hologram). In these poems, the tenor and vehicle often get switched, such as in Yannis Ritsos’ poetry (“a genius at destabilizing”).
  5. A turn to the present, so that the poem includes its own composition.
  6. A turn to the reader: For example, in “Dulce et Decorum Est” at “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace.”

Then we had a question and answer period. I didn’t take thorough notes on everything he was asked. He talked about sentimentality (which he doesn’t like) and irony (which he does); the poetic line as a unit of sense or a unit of rhythm but having to be a unit of something; the role of rhyme in modern poetry (“What happened was the rhymes invaded the body of the poem…”); and, how you know when you’ve finished the poem (his answer was very vague but I don’t know how anybody could answer that definitively).

I really liked one of his answers, to the question of how you decide what order to put the poems in a book manuscript. He said that he didn’t write with a book theme in mind (“All my poems are thematic in that they’re about me. Me and death.”) so he comes up with connections afterwards. He likes to lay his poems all out on the floor of the largest room in the house (“face up!”) and walk around them barefooted, looking for pairings and connections until he has enough groups of them together to make a book. However, and this was the part I really liked, he said you can also order a book by front-loading all the really excellent poems—putting the best stuff first to get the editor’s attention—and then when they accept it, say, “You know, I’ve had some second thoughts about the order…” Hilarious.

His recommended reading:

  1. Andrew Marvel “To His Coy Mistress
  2. William Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey
  3. Richard Eberhart “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment
  4. Vijay Seshadri “The Long Meadow” (subscribers to The New Yorker can purportedly read it here, and the rest of us can read it in the Collins’ essay “The Vehicle of Language,” also linked at the end of this post)
  5. Billy Collins “The Death of the Hat
  6. Billy Collins “Canada
  7. Michael Donaghy’s “The Break” (sorry, I couldn’t find this online)
  8. Yannis Ritsos “A Myopic Child” and “Miniature
  9. Wilfred Owen “Dulce et Decorum Est
  10. Billy Collins “January in Paris” (he reads it here)
  11. Richard Jones “Wan Chu’s Wife In Bed
  12. Charles Bukowski “8 Count

For more on all of this, try this essay: “The Vehicle of Language,” which must have been written by Billy Collins. Oddly, Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t specify the author but lists Collins as a tag, but the essay is in the first peom and talks about a “poem of mine” called “Theme,” which is a poem of Collins’, so I’m satisfied he’s the author (but made slightly paranoid by the lack of byline, as though you all might catch me in an error and be all “obviously it’s an essay by this other poet, So-And-So, who also wrote an identical poem called ‘Theme’ good Lord, Joanne, how can you be so dim” or something).

No such things as distractions.

I attended the first half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry,” yesterday.

He started with the premise that the process of writing is a series of negotiations between the will of the poet and the waywardness of the poem, and that poets are the kind of people who can’t talk about just one thing at a time.

Here were his tips for how to engender the frame of mind while writing which allows you to surprise yourself and let the poem take an unexpected turn:

  1. Think of the poem’s subject as being entirely provisional. Writing a poem is the opposite of writing an essay; you want to turn away from your original thesis and enter new ground.
  2. A little subject matter goes a long way.
  3. Think of a poem as having its own intelligence, and listen to that. If you really listen, the poem might show signs of boredom, so to keep it happy, you gave to come up with something new.
  4. Distractions are clues. If you find yourself being distracted by something as you write, put it in the poem.
  5. Think of the poem as having a present, as opposed to being a recounting of past experience. For the reader, the poem is taking place as it’s read.
  6. Be willing to dispense with fidelity to what really happened. Take advantage of the imaginative freedom that poetry offers. Sometimes you have to make things up to get at the truth.

His recommended reading:

  1. Richard Hugo “The Triggering Town
  2. Shakespeare “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” (discussion of which led to a lengthy aside about sonnets being essentially having something to say, and having something to say about what you had to say, that is, suffering a moment of self-consciousness in those final two lines)
  3. Matthew Arnold “Dover Beach
  4. Billy Collins “The Trouble With Poetry” and “Poetry, Pleasure and the Hedonistic Reader” (I can find neither of these online; sorry.)
  5. Ruth L. Schwartz “The Swan in Edgewater Park” (if you read only one of his suggestions, read this one.)
  6. Stephen Dobyns new book about poetry (which he quoted from, on enjambment, essentially saying unusual enjambments should have a purpose), presumably Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, though I haven’t read it so I can’t confirm that.
  7. Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays” (also)

Edited to add: summary of second half.

“Fiction writers have to be interested in people. That’s not required of poets. Poets just need a deep interest in themselves.” – Billy Collins

I saw Billy Collins reading this morning at Hume-Fogg High School here in Nashville. He read a lot of my favourites (but not “Weighing the Dog” or “Hangover“): “Ballistics,” “A Dog on his Master,” “The Death of the Hat,” “Feedback,” “Forgetfulness,” “The Golden Years,” “The Lanyard,” “Oh My God” (“The past tense of ‘Oh my God’ is ‘I was like Oh My God’,” he said, which is apparently something he’s said before), “The Revenant” and “Schoolsville” (“There’s a certain term limit on enthusiasm for teaching,” he said). My favourite thing he said was this: “To be a writer is to have an opportunistic view of experience.”

In other news, Every Day Poets has accepted another of my poems, and the Folded Word anthology containing my picfic tweets (“Stolen Lighters” and “Work Requirements“) On a Narrow Windowsill: Fiction and Poetry Folded onto Twitter is now available for pre-order.