The poet laureate of the United States—an official appointed by the Library of Congress to promote the reading and writing of poetry in America—seems an odd and irrelevant functionary for a Britney Spears-obsessed, bottom-line-loving society to sponsor. After all, Capitol Hill’s no court of the Italian Renaissance. Still, the position’s seemed less strange in recent years, as laureates’ projects have demonstrated pretty convincingly that poetry does indeed complement modern life. Joseph Brodsky (1991-92) plastered poems in airports, hotel rooms, and hospitals, and Robert Pinsky (1997-2000) got folks to share their favorite poems in readings across the country.
The newest laureate, Billy Collins, who began a $35,000 one-year term in October, says he wants to make poetry “cool” for high school students. How? The 60-year-old New Yorker, who knows from popular—sales of his books prove that “best-selling poet” is not an oxymoron—is simply going to ask kids to listen.
We recently spoke with Collins about this initiative, a program he calls “Poetry 180.”
Q: How was poetry taught in your English classes when you were a student?
A: It was not presented in a way that would lure people to poetry. We subsisted on a diet of male American poets with three names-you know, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, like that. It had no resonance for me, except in a musical way.
Q: When did you begin writing poetry? And why?
A: I first heard fresh American voices through Poetry Magazine, which my father would buy. It’s the oldest poetry magazine in America, first printed in 1912. [Ezra] Pound and [T.S.] Eliot were published in there quite frequently. When I was 18 years old, I sent Poetry Magazine a few poems of mine, and I got a letter back asking me not to send any more, but to keep writing. I waited 25 years before I sent them poems again. But when I did, they published them. You start writing poetry because you like fooling around with language. I liked how you could put two words next to each other and sparks would occur.
Q: You’re known as a poet whose work is accessible to readers. Do you strive to appeal to a contemporary audience?
A: I can’t begin a poem unless it is in a speaking voice. I like the companionship of a reader. I do find much contemporary poetry incomprehensible, and I don’t expect readers to flock to poems that they can’t understand.
Q: You’ve announced that your major activity as poet laureate will be overseeing a program called Poetry 180. What’s it all about?
A: I want to encourage high schools to have a poem a day read as part of the public announcements, maybe over the PA system, or at an assembly.
The locus for this program will be the Library of Congress’ Web site. There you will find lots and lots of poems that I think, if they’re read to the student body, [will have kids] hearing interesting voices, kind of the way I started hearing these interesting voices in Poetry Magazine when I was in high school. I’m encouraging friends to help me, but basically, I’m going to make all the selections.
I’m going to discourage teachers from discussing the poem. I don’t want the poem to go into the classroom or go up on the blackboard. I don’t want the poem to be analyzed or on a test. I just want it to be a hearing experience, so that every day we hear a different poem. And gradually we get to see that poetry is not something that just takes place under the subject heading of “English literature,” but that poetry can be a feature of daily life.
The idea would be for teachers and students, if they did hear a poem by Sharon Olds or Thomas Lux or [another] contemporary poet, maybe they’d go read a book by that person. All it takes is one poem to begin an addiction, and I think by having one poem a day, you increase the odds that a higher number of students will become addicted to poetry. a student might hear 20 poems that do nothing to him. But that 21st one will awaken something and, at the very least, cause students to recognize that it’s not poetry they don’t like—it’s just they’ve been reading the wrong poems.
Q: What does the “180" stand for?
A: It indicates a turn, a turn around, maybe a turn back to poetry. And it is roughly equivalent to the number of school days in the year. I think the poems will be numbered, one to 180, but the nation doesn’t have to be in lock step with this. You can pick it up anywhere, and you can skip poems.
Q: Who do you want to read the poems?
A: I don’t want recordings to be played of the poets themselves or actors reading them. I’d like either a teacher or a student to read it, or the principal. I think to get students involved in the reading is important because other students will hear the poem not coming out of the voice of an authority or a distant recording, but it’ll be someone they are in biology class with, and I think that might bring poems a little closer to people.
Q: Why have you decided to focus on high school students?
A: I think high school is where poetry goes to die. By the time a lot of students get out of high school, they’ve had the poetry beaten out of them by one force or another. And that’s why I’m thinking of this as kind of a recovery operation. We know from having children and being children that children are natural artists. Put on some music; they’ll start dancing. Give them some pencils; they’ll start drawing. But unfortunately, those natural instincts get dried up or blocked at some point for most people. Poets would just be children who didn’t stop rhyming or playing with language.
Adolescence is a difficult time to instill [a love of] poetry for one reason: Poetry asks us to slow down, and adolescence is based on acceleration. But one way I thought of infiltrating high school with poetry, to drop it behind enemy lines so to speak, is to draw on what I feel is a large number of contemporary poems that are hospitable to readers, that are engaging—emotionally engaging or engaging because of their humor—that high school students can absorb on one reading.
Q: Poetry’s been a part of your life since your childhood. What do you think you’d be missing if you didn’t read and write poems?
A: I’d have to find something else to do with my inner life. All of us obviously have an inner life, full of memories and regrets, fears and lusts, and ideas and imaginings and misgivings. I can’t imagine just walking around with that inner life bubbling away in my head without having some activity that objectified and dramatized it. It could be dancing or painting or whatever. For me it wouldn’t be enough just to listen. It would have to be an action, doing some creative work that’s the result of this swarm of bees that’s buzzing around my head all the time.
Q: Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
A: Not really. Just a life of reading poetry is sufficient. If you begin to write poetry, you’ll probably begin because you become jealous of another poet.