Billy Collins: Ballistics

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.

BC: Yes.

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."

BC: Yes.

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! [LAUGHS] 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. [LAUGHS] 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 -- if you did learn them, it would be a sign of real fluency in that language. If you follow the verb tenses, you'll see that a poem may start hospitably -- as you say, I try to follow a kind of courtesy in the beginning of the poem, which is usually expressed in very simple tenses. "I am sitting here, looking out the window" would be an example. But by the end of the poem, if you look at the tenses, you'll see that we've moved into areas of meditative speculation, where we're thinking about what would have happened had this other thing happened in a kind of imagined future. The verb tenses get more complex as the poem goes along, and that's an indication of its...of something. [LAUGHS]

JM: That helps to explain why the poems, which seem to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, often have an anticipatory, a very pregnant end. You've lead us by very simple steps through the poem, yet, at its end, we're not quite sure where we are.

BC: Yes. And I'm not sure where I am either. I like to feel disoriented at the end of the poem. The Russian Formalist, Shklovsky, talks about making things strange. I look for that in fiction and in poetry, the sense that by the end of the piece you're a stranger in a strange land. You've moved into an area of ambiguity where the terms have become very destabilized. I guess that's why I tend to bristle against the word "accessible," which is used by my backers as a compliment and by my detractors as an insult -- I can't win! But the poems are accessible in that they are ultimately the only way of accessing their own endings. There's no way to get to the ending of a worthwhile poem without going through it, because the poem is blazing a trail to some previously nonexistent clearing in an imaginary forest, and it's that kind of new space at the end of the poem that it is the poem's job to access. "Accessible" is used as a synonym for "simple-minded," I suppose. But I consider the endings of my poems to be fairly strange.

JM: The poem in the new book that I'm thinking of right now is "What Love Does," which starts out with a familiar entry point, love songs on the car radio:

A fine thing, or so it sounds on the radio in the summer with all the windows rolled down.

BC: So we're all with that, we're all together in the same car. Right.

JM: Then, with a little twist that's poignant in the exact sense, we come to:

Yet it pierces not only the heart, but the eyeball and the scrotum and the little target of the nipple with arrows.

And you proceed through a small catalogue of love's effects, in which each of the three-line stanzas might be the kernel of a John Donne poem exploring love as arrows, or love as wrestling, love as a flower-hopping bee, and so on. All of this imagery is recognizable and easily embraced. But at the conclusion of the poem, you set us down in a strange land indeed, with an unexpected evocation of the puzzling ominousness of love, setting off on a journey to a forbidding city:

It will travel through the night to get there, and it will arrive like an archangel through an iron gate no one ever seemed to notice before.

You've led us from a summer joyride, listening to the Beach Boys or Frank Sinatra or the Supremes, and then deposited us at the gates of a bewildering city both promising and fearsome.

BC: The poem wants to move from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place, in this case, an imagined city. The theme is the way love passes quickly from one person to another, like a bee going from flower to flower. Even as the ink is drying on the new beloved's name, love is off to visit someone in another city. It's one thing to leave it at that. But the temptation is then to imagine this city, to actually particularize it. Where is this city? What city? Well, it's a city of the imagination, obviously. But then, it's particularized. It has chimney pots, and a school with a tree-lined entrance. So suddenly, the convertible we were driving in is forgotten, and we've moved into the reality of this city, which is a kind of unreality, but it's particularized as if it were real. Then you have this metaphor of the archangel arriving at this city, in the spectral way of archangels, through a gate that somehow no one in the city ever noticed before -- and that would be the entrance to the heart, now that I think of it. To commit an awful act of paraphrase on the poem: you don't realize you're susceptible to love because you've never noticed the possibility of that door being opened. And yet it appears to you in the guise of an archangel.

The way that poem unfolds represents a pretty typical progression for me. I'll have to use it as an example next time someone asks me of a typical poem of mine!

One reason the poems tend to develop into these other dimensions is that the beginnings of the poems are so dull, really. [LAUGHS] I mean, they're so ordinary. If I stayed in that car on a summer night, driving around, that would be a memory poem. I could write a poem about driving around with a girlfriend in high school or whatever, listening to the radio, and we simply stay in that car and commit an act of nostalgia. Others have written poems like that. But, as I said earlier, I want to get away from the limits of autobiography into some new, or seemingly new, dimension.

JM: You've said that John Donne's poem "The Flea" was your first love.

BC: One of the highlights of my education was a course on 17th-century poetry taught at my college by a wonderful man named Francis Drum -- "Mister Drum" to us -- who wore three-piece suits and a gold watch on a fob. Reading that light-blue anthology, I experienced for the first time jealousy toward another poet, particularly Donne. "The Flea" was the first poem I envied. And I learned enough about conceits to feel an obligation later to activate a conceit in every one of my poems; if I don't, the poem doesn't have for me a conceptual dynamic to it. The composition of the poem would not be interesting if it didn't offer the possibility of stepping into a new conceptual dimension.

JM: That's what has always struck me as misguided about people who say of your work that it's just prose broken into lines, because they seem to ignore the way each poem is shaped by a conceptual playfulness that is reflective of a long tradition in English verse. We can talk about the lines themselves in a minute, but the poetic nature of your enterprise seems inarguable to me.

BC: Well, I hope there's something going on that you don't tend to find in prose. When I teach workshops, in some subtle way I'm really trying to discourage people from writing poetry and encourage them to write anything but poetry -- to write memoirs, to write letters to the editor, to write autobiographical essays or short stories. Because so many of the poems, for me, are not poems in the truest sense of the word. The reason is that some younger poets (I was once one of them) are not aware of the imaginative possibilities in poetry. They work in a shrunken capacity, often that of the short story, which reduces imaginative freedom, and the essay, where the constraints are tighter still. I'm thinking of every poem I write as a poem, and I am trying to live up to the expectations that poetry sets. In one way, I am very aware of an audience and very aware of a reader, and I tend to extend certain kinds of etiquette and to acknowledge the presence of a reader, either explicitly or just by my tone. You can tell that I want to talk to you. But in a deeper sense, I think the ultimate audience for my poetry is Poetry itself. I've learned everything I know about poetry from other poems. They've taught me what to do and what not to do. I never took a workshop or resided in a writers' colony. I just read poems. So finally I am not trying to impress my readers. I am trying to impress poetry. I am actually trying to add something to poetry -- a small contribution, but I want it acknowledged that my poetry wants a place in this whole phenomenon, this whole discourse called Poetry.

JM: Let's talk about the line and cadences, which I think are really where these poems live. Again, I am struck by the way, while they are not in strict meters, each line has the same relation to some kind of metrical ancestor as the larger rhetorical frame of the poem has to other, more clearly defined poems. Clearly, cadence is extremely important to you.

BC: Right.

JM: It seems quite obvious to me that they are composed in lines, not just typed in lines.

BC: Yes. I write line by line, and I tend not to go forward until I am convinced that the line I just wrote is a line, a full line. I basically write by the phrase as Frost, Pound, and others advised. The endings of my lines tend to be a place where a grammatical pause or a stop would naturally occur. Take the first few lines of the poem "Scenes of Hell," for example: "We did not have the benefit of a guide." Line. Right? "No crone to lead us off the common path." Line. "No ancient to point the way with a staff." Then, "but there were badlands to cross." Line. "Rivers of fire and blackened peaks." It basically is writing by the phrase, cleaving to the grammatical unit, and maybe that makes the poems seem easy on the eye or easy to ingest.

Poets are line-making creatures. That's why I have trouble with the so-called prose poem. Obviously you can, as Whitman demonstrated, give up end-rhyme and give up iambic pentameter and metronomic meter, and it's still poetry -- or it's even "greater than poetry", as someone said about Leaves of Grass. But if you give up the line, then you've kind of given up everything. So the line is the last resort; the last stand in poetry is on the poetic line. Poets are line-makers, and readers are line-consumers. I write one line after another. Sometimes a few lines will come out in a syntactical burst, but then I look back and test each line to make sure it's a line.

We were talking about the conceptual run of the poem from beginning to middle to end. Usually that's done in one sitting. If you were going to ask me about revision, I'd tell you that my revisions are almost always making the lines a little better, the individual lines, adding an extra beat or changing a word so that it echoes a word three lines above. For me, revision is making the lines more solid so you can almost bounce up and down on them, and they won't give way. So I am totally line-conscious -- as line-crazy as any other poet! What better thing do I have to think about?

JM: One thing I didn't know about you until I did some reading in preparation for this was your affection for Coleridge, and, in particular, his poem "The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

BC: True.

JM: Now that I think of it, it is a real example of what we were discussing before -- describing an imaginative space. That's what that poem is about. His friends have gone off and he is saying, "I'm here."

BC: His friends have gone for a walk and he remains at home. He is aware of both where they are -- he knows this walk cold -- and where he is. The poem moves back and forth from the place that he's in and this broader landscape where his friends are walking. Then there's the third space, which is kind of the speculative space, when he talks about Nature and friendship -- the emotional space that he creates towards the end of that poem.

JM: That poem is part of a set -- with "Frost at Midnight" and some others -- that he called "conversation poems," didn't he? They are very different from his more famous poetical works, like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kublai Khan."

BC: One of his poems is "The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem," and later the term was applied by critics to that whole group of poems, as opposed to the better known "mystery poems" -- including "Kublai Khan," "Ancient Mariner," and "Cristobel." Coleridge worked in two very different dimensions.

One appealing thing to me about the conversation poems is that they all start at home. They start in the domicile. He's in the garden in his lime-tree bower. He's by the fireplace with his son Hartley in "Frost at Midnight." In "The Aeolian Harp," he's in the backyard with his wife. All those poems start at home. I can't think of another poet who used domestic space in that way prior to Coleridge. As far as I can tell he was the first to recognize that the familiar domicile -- the backyard, the living room -- could be a launching pad for a projection of all sorts of imaginings. He can start in a living room and end up on a cloud somewhere!

Emily Dickinson is also a domestic poet in one sense. Instead of going to church, she listens to a bird in the backyard, and there's a definite atmosphere of domestic space in many poems. But I can't think of anyone before Coleridge who is an imaginatively combustible poet and chooses to start in his backyard.

JM: Having spent a good part of the past week reading your work, I was thinking of you last night as I watched the Democratic Convention. Did your tenure as Poet Laureate leave you with a different sense of our civic processes than you had before? Do you feel more engaged by events on the national stage?

BC: No. I feel just as estranged from the whole process as I ever have. The office of the Poet Laureate is completely centered in the Library of Congress, as you know. You're appointed by the Librarian of Congress, your office is in the Library, the "Washington jewelry" you wear around your neck is a Library of Congress ID badge. You're really enclosed in the Library. There's really no relationship to greater Washington, the White House, or to the political process. So, no, I don't feel any more involved than I ever did.

JM: Last questions. What are you reading, either in poetry or any other genre? What kind of a reading life do you lead?

BC: I'm always reading some fiction. Right now, I'm just about to begin Ann Patchett's book Run, as soon as I finish The March by E. L. Doctorow -- his Civil War book, which I'm enjoying.

I have favorite authors, and I try to read all of their work. José Saramago is one, and Thomas Bernhard is another. Those two have a lot in common, I think. There's not much plot in their books, which is appealing. At this point in my life, I'm not really interested in plot anymore. I don't care who goes to bed with whom, and whether they get divorced, whether she has an abortion, or if he jumps out the window. That's not enough to keep me reading. So I like novels that are plot-light -- and very dark: Saramago's Blindness, for example, or any of Bernhard's books. Both those authors also have a hypnotic way of repeating words.

The other qualifier is that they write by the sentence. We were talking about the importance of the line in poetry. Well, obviously, the important unit in prose is the sentence. For me, there are two kinds of fiction. One, you read sentence by sentence, and you often stop and go back to re-read a sentence. On a less-than-conscious level, there's that savoring that's going on, a sentence consumption and appreciation as you're reading. Then there's the second kind of fiction, where you're just plowing through, and the sentences don't stick to you like burrs. You're taking a ride on a plot. All that is satisfied is your curiosity about what happens next. I no longer care what happens next, so those kinds of books I try to avoid.

I have only one speed for reading, and it's fairly slow. But I always have some kind of novel going. And I do try to keep up with poetry to some extent. I think at this point I read poetry from a very jaundiced, coldly professional point of view, in that I am really looking for poets who can do things I can't do. I am looking to see if someone is opening up a new vein, or has kind of broken away from the pack and has found some new spin, some new area, some new boldness that I may be able to incorporate in my own work in some way.

JM: Anyone like that recently that you've come upon?

BC: Yes. Matthew Dickman. He just had a poem in The New Yorker called "Trouble." [Editor's note: The issue of August 11, 2008.] It's about a bunch of suicides -- it starts with Marilyn Monroe -- but then he interjects all this personal stuff. It's a very daringly structured poem without transition. And a young Australian poet, Carol Jenkins -- full of terrific conceits.

I am not struck very often by poems I'm reading, but when I am, what stops me in my tracks is seeing someone who is exercising a freedom that I didn't know existed, and who therefore is doing what poetry should do, which is to find and take advantage of new kinds of verbal and imaginative licenses or liberties.

-August 27, 2008

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The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).