January 20, 2017

Billy Collins Times Five

Billy Collins isn't particularly fond of social media. You don't find him in person on Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook or YouTube, but you will find lots of him and his poetry there via posts from others.

When Collins sat down with NPR for a reading on Facebook Live recorded at the Georgetown Public Library, it drew a large virtual crowd.

If you missed, the archive of the Internet has saved it for you.

He reads several poems and talks about the writing process and the life of a poet - or at least his life as a poet.




"Lucky Cat" is a poem about one of his cats, Audrey, although Collins says he is "basically a dog person."



On how to be a poet, his main advice is to read. And practice.

"It's such dull advice. There's no key to it. It really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry. And I mean not just stuff you find in magazines but if you really want to be trained in poetry you need to read Milton — you need to read Paradise Lost. You need to read Wordsworth — you need to read Wordsworth's 'Prelude'... That's if you want to take it seriously. If you don't want to take it seriously, you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself. No one's gonna read it with any pleasure because ... you haven't paid attention to what happened in the past."




Unlike many poets, when Collins writes a poem he is hoping it is good enough to be published, but if it is not working, he doesn't "fret the poem" (as Robert Frost said) - he lets it go.

"The waste basket is the writer's best friend," he says.




A question that is often asked of poets and about poetry is "What's the difference in hearing a poem read aloud versus reading it silently?"

Collins also talks in greater detail about one of his poems, "Cosmology."

This poem begins before we had science to explain the universe and we looked for a visual representation of cosmology. Collins begins with and rejects the mythology of the Earth balanced "on the back of a sea turtle / who is in turn supported by an infinite regression / of turtles disappearing into a bottomless forever."

But his thoughts move towards a less scientific visual of the planet being balanced on Keith Richards' head.
Now that we are on the subject,
my substitute picture would have the earth
with its entire population of people and things
resting on the head of Keith Richards,
who is holding a Marlboro in one hand
and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the other.
As long as Keith keeps talking about
the influence of the blues on the Rolling Stones,
the earth will continue to spin merrily
and revolve in a timely manner around the sun...



But the poems circles back to the opening thought as, like those turtles, he imagines Keith

standing on the other Rolling Stones,
who are standing on the shoulders of Muddy Waters,
and, were it not for that endless stack of turtles,
one on top of the other all the way down,
Muddy Waters would be standing on nothing at all.

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