Billy Collins is a genial guy, and I suspect there are not too many former United States Poet Laureates (Collins held the Library of Congress post from 2001 to 2003) of whom that would be the first thing one said. When I knocked on the door of his home in New York's northern Westchester County late in August, I was greeted with the same kind of disarming amiability with which he welcomes a reader into a poem.
It has become a commonplace to note that Collins's poems assume a friendly tone, as if the poet were addressing the reader over some mutually enlightening brew. Anyone who has attended one of his many public readings has the extra pleasure of hearing the poet's voice -- often riding on an edge of humor -- sounding in the ear as the lines are met upon the page. Yet, despite the seemingly spoken nature of Collins's muse, there is an undertow of formalism to his work that supplies a tempered, pleasing structure to his verses. In fact, Collins's "talks" are often ingeniously contrived conceits, taking an image or a figure of speech and charting its passage through an etiquette of intellectual argument. This is done with such an offhand delivery that one might easily miss a telling influence on the poet, one revealed during this interview in Collins's praise of John Donne's lovely poem "The Flea." The playfulness and wit, the suppleness of mind and intricacy of heart the English metaphysical poets (of whom Donne was the master) employed with such relish in the 17th century seems to me to haunt Collins's more loosely voiced lyrics. We might call him the master of the "demotic metaphysical" -- just the sort of literary description the laureate of a democracy should earn, if you ask me.
Our conversation took place a week or so before the September publication of his newest volume of poems, Ballistics. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange. -- James Mustich
Billy Collins: What would you like to know?
James Mustich: You once said in another interview, "I'm not much interested in my own stylistic development."
BC: I think development is overrated and misunderstood. Do we want our authors to sound like themselves, or would we rather they were always changing? Mostly, the answer is A. Emily Dickinson never developed. She remained loyal to her persona and to that same little metrical song that stood her in such good stead. She is a striking example of complexity within a simple package. Her rhymes are like bows on the package.
JM: Since Ballistics is your ninth or eleventh book, depending upon what you're counting, I'm wondering if the enterprise of writing poems has changed for you in any way in the course of composing that shelf of volumes.
BC: I think there may be some subtle changes. Some poets develop in very distinct ways by getting either better or worse. I wonder about the legitimacy of expecting improvement from writers, which seems to press more heavily on fiction writers than poets. The disappointing second novel is measured against the brilliant first novel -- often no novel lives up to the first. Literary improvement seems like an unfair expectation. I don't know anyone who's getting better in life particularly. I don't see signs of improvement in people I know , or in politicians, or in me for that matter.
The reason I said that poets don't need to develop is tied up with the idea of the persona. While I don't much like the expression "finding your voice, " my sense is that the important breakthrough moment for a poet is when he or she has developed a kind of character through which he or she can speak with ease. This character -- or persona -- resembles the poet in many ways but is clearly a refinement of the actual person. Your persona is your better. And what marks that discovery of a character is the conviction on the poet's part -- and subsequently, we would hope, on readers' parts -- that this character is different from all other poetic characters, at least in some small way. So once a poet has put together that character, perhaps like some kind of Frankenstein monster, borrowing this and that from other poets, a style is established. In my own case, I find that once I had constructed a persona, I had no real interest in changing to a radically different voice. I know my voice has a limited range of motion; I don't write dramatic monologues and pretend to be other people. But so far, my voice is broad enough to accommodate most of what I want to put into my poetry. I like my persona; I often wish I were him and not me.
JM: In revisiting some of your earlier books as I was reading the new one, I was struck by one difference. It seems to me that in the new poems there's a little more breath in the line -- a kind of ease with enjambment that the early poems lacked. The poems in The Apple That Astonished Paris, for instance, were composed in lines that seem more -- "measured" isn't the word, but a little tighter.
JM: Has your Homeric schedule of public readings contributed to that in any way?
BC: I don't think it's the result of the public readings, but you're very right in detecting this change from tighter to looser lines. I never think in terms of a whole audience of people until I am actually standing at a podium. I don't write for an auditorium full of people. I don't write for the microphone; I write for the page. In silence. The circumstances under which I usually write are those under which anyone probably writes -- that is, you're alone in a room with your pen and paper. And as I compose, I am picturing a reader who is in a similar circumstance -- in a room in relative silence. So my compositional mood is one of quietude and intimacy: I'm trying to create an intimate communication, one which has interrupted a silence that will resume after the poem is written and read. So I don't think that the Homeric -- or did you say heroic, or horrific? -- reading agenda explains it.
But you're right. My earlier poems -- particularly the ones in The Apple That Astonished Paris, which was my first real book, and not published until I was into my forties -- wished to be clever, and some were a little too smart for their own good. There was a smart-alecky tone to them. They tended to be shorter because they were jokier -- some were making the mistake of trying to be witty. I think it was that kind of temperament that made the lines seem a little more clipped, and the endings seem a little more like punch lines. Later I wrote more capacious poems, longer ones that were no longer eager to shut down so quickly, and I learned to do that from consciously reading Coleridge. So maybe the looser lines that you detect are a sign that the sensibility that has governed the poems has changed -- from one attempting witty poetry to one after a more speculative kind of poetry, a longer, more relaxed meditation that left room for maneuvering.
JM: Here's something else you've said: "The lyric poem is basically about you dying. Here I am, I am looking at a tree, and I am going to die. You can take 83 percent of lyric poems and put them under that heading, with variations on that observation." In the new book, the specter of death seems even more prominent -- actually, let me put it this way: death seems less a specter and more of a presence. I'm thinking of poems in Ballistics like "No Things" and "The First Night," which really take death head-on. Is your age showing?
BC: The shadow of death falls across the pages of much lyric poetry, in that good lyric poetry exists -- if it can be reduced to one single purpose -- in order to remind us of our mortality. The abbreviated message of lyric poetry is basically that life is beautiful, but you're going to die. Nabokov, when he started teaching at Cornell, said he knew only two things: one, life is beautiful, and two, life is sad. The reason life is sad is that it's going to be over. When asked about the meaning of life, Kafka said that the meaning of life is that it's going to end. So the poems in Ballistics share with those in my previous books, and with much of lyric poetry since Wordsworth, the common perspective of looking at life through this lens of mortality. The message of carpe diem is urgent, but it's also a poetic convention. If my new poems differ from earlier ones, it's probably because there is a sense of isolation in some of them -- I mean, it's one thing to die, and it's another thing to die alone.
Often a poem will begin, and I don't know where it's going, and it will turn into a love poem. Another poem begins, I don't know where it's going, and it turns into a death poem. Or it turns into a love and death poem. But the poems usually take a turn down a street that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The ending of the poem is unfamiliar because I didn't foresee it, and in the act of composition, it usually comes as a surprise. But it's also familiar in that there aren't too many streets to turn down in poetry. There's the love street and there's the death street, and maybe those are the only two. You end up sounding one of these two big chords -- or two big notes, and sometimes it becomes a chord of love and death.
There are poems that escape these obsessions, but I find that a lot of poetry that is not concerned with, or is not written in, the penumbra of mortality tends to avoid the subject by escaping into the past. Writing about the autobiographical past is something that I try to avoid in my own work. Call it a sense of false decorum, but I don't consider apt subject matter for poetry stuff that happened to me when I was younger, or some traumatic incident, or some memorable camping trip with Uncle Harold. I'm only one of many who believe that the poem should be an event that takes place in the present. It should give you the feeling that something is actually happening as you're reading it, rather than it being merely a recounting of an experience that has already taken place and is now simply being reported as a past fact. Even if the poem concerns a past experience, it can still convey a sense that something is happening as it goes along. You can create that awareness by infusing your poem with self-consciousness. Then, the reader senses that an unfolding is occurring in the poem's own moment.
I'm not sure how exactly this connects with the love and death themes, but I find a lot of poems kind of go slack when I get the sense that they are just taking me on a tour of a family album; the poem then becomes a slide show, or someone's autobiography, without the poem having its own existential, linguistic present. I'm really trying to enable the reader to duplicate the feeling of immediacy that I experience as I am writing down the words. There is nothing magical about this; it's done through word choice and syntax.
JM: You are very accomplished at creating those moments, and in this book in particular -- in the poems about death I referred to -- it's not the writing of the poem itself but the impulses that go into it that make the moment. In "No Things," you write about how our focus on pretty things, our attention to anything, is an avoidance of "the one true destiny," which is Philip Larkin lurking around the corner...
BC: "In an undertaker's coat." Larkin is my Grim Reaper. He's a little easier on the eyes than the guy with the hood and the scythe.
JM: And the poem culminates by questioning the very impulse, the wandering meditation, that inspires so much of the poet's work:
What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub
when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?
The next poem in the book, "The First Night," explores similar terrain. It's really about, as you say, "How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,/How impossible to write it down." But at the end of this one, despite having admitted that your vocabulary is feeble, you meet the fear of death with lyric eloquence:
. . . it is enough to frighten me
into paying attention to the world's day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,
and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment is to guard the rose.
In both poems, the reader shares the existential moment invoked by the poem's self-consciousness.
BC: A lot of my poems are like extended haiku, in that the haiku seems to be interested in what you might call the romance of time. That is, the haiku isn't interested in history, nor is poetry anymore -- after the great epics were written, history became the province of fiction and non-fiction, so what poetry is about is not history, but time. In a lot of poems, there is a double involvement with time, and it's almost a paradoxical one. For instance, in the pure carpe diem poem, you are being told that time is fleeting. These poems are warnings to an otherwise oblivious crowd of people, walking around on earth as if they had all the time in the world, that the end is near. The carpe diem poet is like the messianic crazy guy on the street corner with a sign around his neck announcing the end of days. In poetry the hope is that the warning will affect people's behavior, not by encouraging them particularly to get right with the Lord, but rather to get right with experience -- they should fall to their knees with gratitude that they are alive and have this welter of experience swimming around them. But at the same time as the poem is conveying this exhortation to live more vividly, the poet is attempting to secure his or her place in time by writing the poem, aspiring to participate in the immortality which art holds out as a promise. A Shakespeare sonnet may warn us about the limitations of time, yet the sonnet itself becomes the poet's hopeful assurance that his days will be perpetuated.
I just came across this idea of Jacques Lacan's -- and I may not have it quite right -- about what he calls "the two deaths" and the period between them: le temps entre les deux morts. You thought you just had one death, but Lacan has come up with a second death for everybody. The first death occurs when you physically die. The second death occurs at the moment when the last traces of you have been erased from human memory. Most people tend to perpetuate themselves through their children, and they may remember their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and so on, but basically that memory transference trails off at some point. There might be one story about your great-great-grandfather that keeps being told, but that story will be forgotten eventually, and after the last time the story is told, when the last person forgets it, your grandfather is obliterated. So one of the motives for writing, or doing anything lasting in art, I suppose, is to increase that time, so that the time between your physical death and your second death is extended. Shakespeare hasn't died yet. Nor Homer. They are good examples of people who have a very long period of time, almost limitless time after their physical deaths and before their memory deaths. Maybe if we put our minds to it, we can come up with a third death!
JM: Your poems are famously welcoming. Readers can enter them easily because of the familiarity of diction and subject matter, and your mode of address is quite disarming, especially for anyone whose approach to poetry is trepidatious. Talking about this characteristic of your work, you've explained that the reason you are welcoming is "to lure the reader inside the poem so that other things can happen besides just good manners."
JM: In another context entirely -- you were talking about writing workshops -- you protest the idea that writing can be socialized by referring to Gaston Bachelard's idea of "felicitous space" -- "private nooks where children hide and where their imaginations are formed." Let me put those two remarks of yours together to suggest that, in addition to the felicitous space in which you retreat to compose the poems, your invitation to readers leads them into a space of their own that's like that, a space they don't frequently visit in their ordinary lives. So readers' experience of your poems is poetic in a way it's not when they read other poems that don't let them in.
BC: That's well put. Well, "stanza" means "room" in Italian. Right? You could think of a poem as being a kind of enclosure. I mean, clearly poems use the space of the page differently than prose. Prose fills the page, whereas poetry occupies part of the page, while another part is discreetly left unoccupied, which also makes it seem that you're entering some kind of hologram or some verbal space that is different from the unoccupied blankness around it. An island of words with silent water around it.
I'm aware that the poem is an acoustic space. And it's also an imaginative space that exists only for thirty seconds or two minutes, the time it takes to read an average size poem. So it's a brief enclosure, but also, in terms of imaginative possibility, it's a very expansive zone. I hadn't really thought about it that way, but I would hope ideally -- and what you've described is kind of an ideal relationship with the reader -- that I create a space through the composition of the poem, and then the reader, instead of just reading a recounting of something that happened to me, moves into this other dimension, which has its own rules, or it might be better to say it suspends the normal rules, both social and physical. You can clearly, in poetry, achieve a higher degree of imaginative freedom than in any other genre, and that imaginative freedom often involves suspending the usual Newtonian and chronological laws that we assume govern experience. The poem can create another world where these principles and expectations don't apply. I love poems that suspend me in this other space, where I am not subject to the usual physical or chronological or social rules that govern most of what happens to me. That's a sign of a good poem for me, if I feel I am actually in some other place, some other realm the poet has created, and that I am allowed to move into. Good poems like that are rabbit holes for the reader to fall into.
JM: What's distinctive about your poems for many people, myself included, is the way you manage to create that space for the reader without recourse to the intricacy and knottiness that most of us who have read a lot of poetry assume are necessary for the task. Your poems are really little spells that work their magic with the ease -- as far as the reader is concerned -- of conversation (I'm sure I'm not being fair to the rigors of composition). Many people who are drawn to poetry have been taught that creating the kind of suspension you describe requires a lot more engineering than you make apparent.
BC: Yes. There's an assumed corollary between syntactic knottiness, syntactic complexity, and the ability of the poem to create some second reality; but poets like Szymborska show that you can make imaginative leaps with a very simple vocabulary. So I think it's a false corollary. The fact is that strong imaginative poets have interesting minds. Of course it might seem unfair to say in a workshop, "Well, in order to write good poetry, you need to have interesting thoughts." But that is what a poet like Szymborska has, and the result is her truly original take on things; plus, she's able to slip dimensions and show us life from stunningly odd perspectives. One minute, we're in a dining room, the next we are in heaven with Sir Isaac Newton, then we're back! If a poet is able to do that, she really doesn't need a lush or complex diction. She doesn't need to show off her top ten words for the week. One can be very plain-spoken and still get the reader to go places. Frost, in a mellower way, is another example of someone who is going to send you into exciting places, not just to the OED.
JM: You spoke before about the haiku. You've written, or said, that you try "to evoke the world in a haiku-like presentation of the world in an unadorned condition, without the enhancing lift of metaphor." But your poems seem to me to have a hidden but very strong armor of conceit, in the sense that we use "conceit" when talking about the metaphysical poets -- a metaphorical or logical construct that shapes the unfolding of the poem. There's an underlying rhetorical structure to many of the poems that the surface voice does not refer to, and which is not promulgated by intricate imagery or supported by rhyme. The structure isn't apparent, maybe, but if you were to x-ray any of the poems, you'd see it there like a skeleton.
Which leads me to two questions. First, is what I just said a load of crap?
BC: It's a great-sounding load of crap, if it is.
JM: Second, if it's not, how conscious are you of embedding these ghostly structures in the poems?
BC: Whatever you said is very flattering! It sounds great.
I don't want to even get into what I'm conscious of when I'm writing. I don't know what I'm conscious of, exactly. But what you've presented here is indeed a kind of an x-ray of some of these poems. Now that you draw my attention to it, they do have these two elements: one is the stabilizing influence of images, whether it's the teacup or the cloud or the dog -- clear images create a visual stability in the poems; then there's this other thing going on, which is the conceptual run or dynamic of the poem. It's true that I can't finish a poem -- I can't even get a poem moving very far -- unless I have a conceit, a conceptual ball I am tossing around. Whether it's fooling with time and space, or making some kind of self-referential moves, there's usually some kind of conceptual play that gives the poem what you rightly call its rhetorical structure. This might be a complicated way of saying that many of the poems have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I begin somewhere and end up somewhere else, and the middle is made up of a series of maneuvers that allow me to get from A to B. But I would not be interested in writing a poem if it lacked some kind of conceit -- if it wasn't a conceptual field with boundaries in which some kind of concept is being played with.
That is probably the reason that the endings of many of my poems use uncommon verb tenses. The poem often starts in the simple present, but by the time you get to the end of it, there are tenses like "X would have had had to happen" -- past-conditionals and that kind of thing, complex tenses that you would find hard to learn in another language. Or that you would learn last --
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