In my senior year of high school, my English teacher asked us to choose a poet who we admired and to write a report about him or her. A lover of prose and a skeptic towards poetry, I chose the first poet I could think of: Sylvia Plath. After about 20 minutes, I was seized by the overwhelming desire to stick my head in an oven, and promptly began looking for another poet.
After searching, I found Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, whose poem entitled “Marginalia,” describes, in stunning accuracy and wit, the tendency people have to write in the margins of books, and more specifically, the different types of notes — whether astonished remarks or stances of indignation — people write.
In this poem, Collins gives life to a practice that is overlooked, and if not overlooked, then certainly not considered substantial enough to merit a poem.
When I read the final lines of this poem, which detail a young girl’s marginal comments in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, saying “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love,” I knew I had found a poet whose work I could relate to.
Collins is the rare man who can write a narrative from a dead dog’s perspective and still get a laugh, who can describe a singing squirrel and evoke nostalgia for something you’ve never had, who can capture the essence of a poet’s lifestyle through wit and the use of a reoccurring window motif.
And he does it all with an unerring accessibility that will simultaneously delight a child and move an adult to unbridled introspection.
Collins graced Glenn Memorial Auditorium last Sunday with his poetry. The reading was a part of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series, which has brought to campus esteemed poets such as Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Alexander, Rita Dove, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton, according to the press release.
Collins also participated in a Creativity Conference in Cannon Chapel yesterday with Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing Kevin Young and University Vice-President & Secretary Rosemary Magee. During the conference, Collins shed light on his idea of what it takes to be a poet. He stressed the fact that you cannot simply write poetry to be a poet. You must also read poetry.
“Poetry is inspired by poetry,” he said. “Your voice as a poet has an external source.”
Without an array of influences, an aspiring writer cannot truly learn to write poetry, he said. Therefore, it is essential for the writer to draw on the styles of many poets in his or her own work until it is impossible to trace the poem back to the source.
“Like a good soup,” Collins said, “[in which] the ingredients have been ingeniously blended.”
When writing his own poems, Collins starts small.
“It’s always good to start with something very small and undeniable,” he said in an interview with the Wheel after the Creativity Conversation. “I try not to come in with an agenda. But then I want to go somewhere. I want to take the reader to an interesting place that might even be a little disorienting or bizarre.”
The wonderfully bizarre nature of many of Collins’s poems was not lost on Sunday’s audience. Interim director of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library and director of Library External Affairs Ginger Smith introduced Young, who spoke a little about Collins’s work, before introducing the acclaimed poet.
“He is a poet who is incredibly intimate,” Young said. “Collins suggests poetry is a living thing.”
Collins’s cleverness, which I had grown to expect, was abundant and proved a central through-line during Sunday’s reading. Collins read 25 of his poems, from various collections, to a full house.
He opened by sharing an amusing anecdote from a reading he gave in Texas. Collins explained that the chair of the English department expressed surprise at the large number of people in attendance, to which Collins promptly responded by expressing his own surprise that 20 million people watch American Idol.
The first poem Collins read, “You, Reader,” detailed an imagined relationship between a salt and a pepper shaker. He wonders if the two are friends after all the time they’ve spent as a duo, or if they are still strangers like “you and I.” In this way, Collins uses everyday, seemingly mundane objects to comment on the strange connection a poet has to his readers and vice versa.
In another poem, entitled “The Suggestion Box,” Collins colorfully portrays a day in the life of a poet. The poem begins with the speaker sitting in a diner.
A waitress approaches to take his order, saying, “I bet you’re going to write a poem about this,” after spilling a coffee in his lap.
Throughout the poem, many individuals offer advice about poem topics.
“Why is everyone being so helpful, I think,” Collins read to an uproar of laughter.
Collins’s humor takes a dark, yet undeniably comic, turn in his poem, “Hangover.” He muses, while sitting in a motel listening to children play Marco Polo in the pool, what he would do if crowned emperor: “Every child who is playing Marco Polo,” he began, “would be required to read a biography of Marco Polo — a long one with fine print — as well as a history of China and of Venice, the birthplace of the venerated explorer Marco Polo.”
The poem concludes with the speaker’s ultimate goal: “each child would be quizzed by me then executed by drowning.”
Although Collins’s wit is sharp and his wording colloquial, his true genius lies in his active imagination. One of Collins’s most memorable poems from the reading was written in response to French poet Paul Valéry’s comment, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
He begins by describing a winter day in January: “I would see the poems of Valéry, the ones he never finished but abandoned, wandering the streets of the city half clothed.” He personifies one poem in particular, describing her as “beautiful, emaciated, unfinished.”
Collins’s final jab at Valéry’s notion of an abandoned poem is to do what Valéry could not: “Never mind the holding and the pressing,” he said. “It is enough to know that I moved my pen in such a way as to bring her to completion.”
— Contact Arianna Skibell