Billy Collins captivates Speakers Series audience
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
“You’re taking a chance here,” he said wryly at the start of his talk. “There’s a pretty good chance Steve Wozniak [the Apple Computer co-founder who spoke last month] is going to get the day right, but with a poet, you never know… It’s a pretty good day: I’m here, I’m sober,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “Daydreaming is part of the poet’s job. If there are acorns to be kicked, we will do the kicking.”
Collins is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. His work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and he’s a regular guest on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and other programs. Phil Redo, managing director of WGBH-FM, Lesley’s media partner for the Boston Speakers Series and home to Boston Public Radio, introduced Collins to the Symphony Hall audience. Redo noted Collins’ remarkable stardom as a poet, heralding his distinction as the first U.S. poet to receive a six-figure publishing deal. As soon as Collins took the stage, he quipped, “That’s the low six-figures.”
During his lecture, Collins talked about his parents, his craft, and his thoughts on other poets and poetry. He also shared some of his own work. Reading his popular poem “The Lanyard,” he brought laughter of recognition as he characterized the parent-child relationship through his story of crafting his mother a plastic lanyard at summer camp, proudly feeling it was gift enough to repay his mother’s deep devotion to feed, clothe, educate and nurture him.
It reads, in part,
“She gave me life and milk from her breasts,and I gave her a lanyard.She nursed me in many a sick room,lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,and then led me out into the airy lightand taught me to walk and swim,and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.Here are thousands of meals, she said,and here is clothing and a good education.And here is your lanyard, I replied,which I made with a little help from a counselor.”
Collins attributes his love of poetry to his mother, who often dipped into poetry and had a melodious, rhythmic way of talking. His father wasn’t particularly literary, but he received Poetry Magazine at his Wall Street office, which first exposed a young Collins to the sounds of contemporary poetry and language he could relate to, rather than poetry written by “dead white men,” he explained. He believes humor is essential to good poetry and literature, going back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and William Shakespeare. He theorized that humor ended abruptly in the Romantic era, and joked that William Wordsworth and other poets at the time got together and conspired to “remove sex and humor from poetry” and “substitute landscape.”
“Seriousness and humor can be interestingly blended,” he advocated, “as a means of illumination.”
In his poem, “No Time,” for example, he writes about rushing to work and honking at another car as he passed the cemetery in which his parents are buried. It concludes:
“Then, all day, I think of him rising upto give me that lookof knowing disapprovalwhile my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.”
“You think writing a really funny poem about your dead parents is easy?” he posed to the audience. “You try that at home.”
Collins also offered advice, and was asked during the Q&A period moderated by Redo whether you can teach people poetry. Collins said one can’t learn to write poetry without a talent for verbal rhythm and metaphor; however, all good poets are influenced by other poets, and inspiration and a bit of jealousy of other writers “is the little propeller under the ship: you can’t see it turning, but that’s what’s driving it.”
He warned aspiring poets not to tackle enormous subjects frontally, such as the death of parents or the Trojan War. He advised a different approach, using his poem, “The Death of the Hat” as an example.
“The poem started out about hats, and at some point that made me think of my father, and at some point it became an elegy of my father.”
He suggests using your pen as an instrument of discovery to find out what you’re really thinking. When asked whether poetry has always been perceived as outdated, Collins responded that poetry is a victim of competition, starting with the novel, which he likened to the invention of electricity.“But at weddings, funerals, and particularly after 9/11, people are turning back to poetry. Why turn away from it?” he said, noting poetry’s importance during moments of fragility or significance, when we’re thinking of life and mortality. “Carpe diem: Poetry has been telling you that since Roman times.”
Before his lecture at Symphony Hall, Collins visited the Lesley campus and spoke with students and faculty in Marran Theater. Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Aaron Smith welcomed and closed the program, and recent graduate Tyler Burdwood introduced Collins.
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