Moments are the building blocks of time. Since we are mostly oblivious to the individual perceptions that make up our lives, says acclaimed poet Billy Collins, it’s the job of lyrical poetry to bring us back to a sense of the momentary. He reminds us that poetry’s oldest theme is “carpe diem” -- seize the day -- stretching back thousands of years. He is not coy about the sense behind this ancient imperative: We do not have an unlimited number of days.

Billy Collins the poet has invented a persona, a speaking voice for his poems. It is more of a character than an autobiographical equivalent, he says, it resembles the writer in many ways but is a new and improved version of himself. Dr. Collins is content in the single voice that he has created and nurtured, contrasting his challenge to that of a novelist who must invest in dozens or hundreds of characters.

Seeing himself as half of an exchange -- when the reader arrives, the exchange is complete -- Billy Collins writes for a single person sitting in a room alone, reading in silence. This intimacy is not diminished by the strongly vocal appeal of poetry that Dr. Collins attributes to poetry. As a distinguished professor, he’s often in front of appreciative students and, given his huge following of admirers, he is in great demand for public readings. In public settings, he says, a poem is meant to be vocalized in a way that prose isn’t. It is meant to give the ear pleasure, to be an interruption of silence. He insists that poems should be preceded by silence and followed by silence because, he says, for him, poetry displaces silence the way a body displaces water.

A very good metaphor for poetry, Billy Collins says, is travel writing -- it’s just not geographical, it’s imaginative travel. Originality in poetry, he goes on, is simply the ability to successfully conceal and disguise your influences. When a poem appears original, it’s a kind of stew, a concoction of various elements blended together in such a way that one cannot easily separate them out again. Like a smoothie, he says with his characteristic humor.

There are a lot of pleasures that come out of poetry, according to this singular poet. They include the pleasure of rhythm, of watching metaphorical connections, the pleasure of going on an imaginative journey, the pleasures of memorization and the musical aspect, none of which require teachers. He puts the intellectual pleasure of interpretation and finding meaning at the end of the queue.

Yes, poetry is about patterning and a basic instinct for symmetry and beats and intervals and organization. But more, Billy Collins joins the poets stretching back into the mists of prehistory. He urges us to intensify our regard for a single moment in time, one which seems to contain all moments and yet holds on to its integrity. Focus on that moment and find its release of energy. In other words, “Carpe Diem.”

[This Program was recorded April 2, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

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Billy Collins

. . . poet. America’s poet laureate for 2001-2003, Billy Collins is now poet laureate for the State of New York. With a PhD in English literature, he is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. His six books of poetry include Sailing Alone Around the Room and Nine Horses, both of which are national bestsellers, and he is the editor of Poetry 180:  A Turning Back to Poetry.


Conversation 1

Billy Collins creates an on-the-spot theory of puns as the origin of poetry. He describes poetry’s foundations and fashions.


Conversation 2

Using the image created by a Billy Collins poem, the conversation turns to different kinds of pleasures found in poetry, including but far from restricted to the pleasure of finding “meaning.” Dr. Collins compares his own childhood piano lessons to how poetry is taught to school children, then describes “Poetry 180” for high schools plus academic approaches to poetry. He describes how he teaches students about haiku..


Conversation 3

Billy Collins reads his poem, “Drawing.” It is not difficult to write difficult poetry, he says, then describes how poems for him begin in clarity and end in mystery.  He describes the character in his poems as a new and improved version of himself, then describes Emily Dickinson’s and Walt Whitman’s creations. Dr. Collins sums up “originality” in poetry and explains why he thinks of poetry as travel writing.


Conversation 4

Poetry might strike you at any second so always have your equipment at hand, says Dr. Collins, who reads his “Lines Lost Among Trees.” He quotes Nabokov on good readers, then describes the reader he imagines when writing. The poet performs half the exchange, when the reader arrives the exchange is complete he says and expands.  He recalls the demise of his childhood imaginary friend, with other stories from his youth.  Poetry is meant to be vocalized in ways prose isn’t, Dr. Collins suggests, then explains poetry as an interruption of silence. He considers the elements of craft in poetry.


Conversation 5

Recalling that his first book of poetry was published when he was 40, Dr. Collins traces his own path to finding his “voice.” He urges writers to take off poetry goggles and let other parts of themselves be part of their poems.  He reads his poem, “Today,” then remembers what he was repressing when he was trying to be a “good poet.” He admires jazz and uses it as an analogy, with caveats. He suggests why he thinks poetry provides the highest degree of imaginative freedom of any written art, certain that it is poetry’s imaginative excitement that attracts him to it.


Conversation 6

Dr. Collins describes what interests him about writing poetry, then asserts that it’s the hypothetical that makes us human. He amplifies on Wallace Stephens’ statement that “death is the mother of beauty” and on what Dr. Collins says is poetry’s oldest theme: “carpe diem” -- seize the day.





The many ways that poet Thomas Lux has graced our lives with beautyinclude introducing us to Billy Collins.  We are grateful.

We also thank Ginger Murchison, who deftly assists Mr. Lux in the “Poetry@Tech” program at Georgia Institute of Technology, for making the arrangements necessary for this Conversation.

Related Links:

Billy Collins’ six collections of poetry include the national best sellers Nine Horses and Sailing Alone Around the Room published by Random House.

... And here's a bit on the program co-hosts Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.

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