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Former poet laureate Billy Collins on 'Musical Tables,' his new collection of poems

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Billy Collins believes in the beauty of short poems. He says they show how poetry can squeeze a lot of meaning into tight spaces. His new collection of short poems is called "Musical Tables," and let's ask him to read one called "Dog."

BILLY COLLINS: (Reading) When she runs in her sleep, eyelids twitching, legs churning sideways on the floor, I wonder if she's chasing a squirrel or being chased by an angry farmer waving a rake.

SIMON: Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, joins us now. Thank you so much for being back with us.

COLLINS: You're very welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What's your special regard for short poems?

COLLINS: I started being entranced by them probably when I discovered haiku when I was in high school. I like the sense that it's a more sudden engagement. I've always preferred poetry as what I would write over the novel because of its quickness. I mean, the novelist is with you for weeks, right?

SIMON: Mmm-hmm.

COLLINS: I mean, there he or she is on the nightstand day after day until you finish. The poet is more like someone - a door opens, the poet's standing there. He or she says something profound and musical about life and death. And then, the door closes. It's sort of like, who was that masked man? And that sudden appearance is made even more sudden if you reduce a poem to three or four lines.

SIMON: Do some poets worry that they have to go long to be considered important?

COLLINS: I mean, I don't start with a concept in writing these poems and then compact them into a shorter space. They seem to arrive fully formed, and they're so short that there's no beginning, middle or an end. And many of the common pleasures that we associate with poetry are absent here. There's no landscape, for example, no personal reflection or a delivery of misery. There's not even any time to develop an idea. So it's more of a just a verbal maneuver that takes place.

SIMON: I'm going to read an especially short one. In fact, I think the title might be longer than the poem. It's called "Reflections On An Amish Childhood."

(Reading) I was a little square in a round hat.

COLLINS: Very well read.

SIMON: Thank you (laughter).

COLLINS: Just enough nondrama.

SIMON: Oh, I love that poem. I was a little square in a round hat. And I find that tells the story.

COLLINS: Well, it's very touching in a way, in the - that the boy is speaking.

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: But it's just basic geometry.

SIMON: (Laughter). Could I get you to read a poem? "Corridor." And I found it very effecting. It plucks your heart.

COLLINS: (Reading) "Corridor." I've grown old. Now my own name rings a bell.

SIMON: Wow. That's a whole life in there for some people.

COLLINS: Or the end of one, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: I think a corridor comes from - I mean, I want this to kind of - "Corridor," I wanted to place it in a man in a hallway...

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: ...Between rooms or even in a nursing home.

SIMON: Not only is it a very moving poem, I guess it's just as long as it needs to be.

COLLINS: It's three lines long. It has something in common with a number of these poems in that it takes a cliche, like that name rings a bell, a vague remembrance, and it - try to gives (ph) it a fresh meaning by turning it rather on the speaker so that your own name is the one that's ringing a bell. You can barely remember it.

SIMON: Wow. I assume you have met and are even friendly with people who have been poet laureates of, say, the U.K. or France or Ireland. What's it like to be a poet laureate of the United States?

COLLINS: Well, I can sum that up - there was one evening in London when I was having dinner with the current U.K. poet laureate, Andrew Motion. And, of course, the British poet laureate writes what are called occasional poems, poems that are commemorating a certain event, a coronation, for example. So at the end of the dinner, I said to him, I think the difference is basically this. The British poet laureate writes occasional poems. And the American poet laureate writes occasionally.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLINS: That's probably the main - that's the main difference.

SIMON: Yeah. I get to read one again, if that's all right, as a dog owner.

COLLINS: Sure.

SIMON: And I'm struck by the - I'm not sure metaphor is the word - the metaphor you make of poems, or dogs' doo (ph).

(Reading) "Morning Walk." The dog stops often to sniff the poems of others before reciting her own.

(Laughter).

COLLINS: Well, that shows that the dog knows that you need to be influenced by other poets before you recite your own.

SIMON: Well, our poodle writes haiku. But, of course...

COLLINS: Right, well...

SIMON: Poodles are so...

COLLINS: That says they're prone to that.

SIMON: Yes, I know. Exactly. May I ask, do your friends and family expect you to write a poem for them on holidays or birthdays?

COLLINS: No, I've never - they know better (laughter). They know better. And you don't know me very well, but if you knew me just a little better, you wouldn't think to ask me. So I don't really get that.

SIMON: So not on demand?

COLLINS: I've written two poems on demand - one for the 300th anniversary of the Trinity School in New York, and the other on the first anniversary of 9/11. I wrote a poem...

SIMON: Right, right, yes.

COLLINS: ...And read it before Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: (Reading) Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night. A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze. And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows, I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened, then Baxter and Calabro, Davis and Eberling, names falling into place as droplets fell through the dark. Names printed on the ceiling of the night. Names slipping around a watery bend. Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

SIMON: What kind of challenge is it to make yourself write a poem - I don't want to say to order, but as you did for the anniversary of 9/11 - write a poem to - yes, to hit a certain date, a certain appearance in a certain circumstance?

COLLINS: Well, one of the difficulties of that kind of a poem that has a definite subject, it really can't move off in some whimsical direction. It has to stick to the topic. Now, that's something you do in an essay at school; you stick to the topic. In poetry, one of the - I mean, what I enjoy - one of the things I enjoy about poetry is that it doesn't care about the topic. It wants to lose the topic.

So it was an impossible thing for me to write until I discovered I could do it by writing in a genre. So I wrote an elegy, a poem for the dead. That way I could avoid all the other implications of that terrible event. Also, I could use the alphabet as a way to get through the poem, moving from letter to letter, almost as kind of handholds that would keep me going through the poem. So those were two self-imposed restrictions. And those - paradoxically, those two confinements allowed me to write the poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: (Reading) Alphabet of names in a green field. Names in the small tracks of birds. Names lifted from a hat or balanced on the tip of the tongue. Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory. So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

SIMON: How often does it happen that you begin a poem to say one thing, but writing it, it says something else?

COLLINS: Well, that's what we're looking for. That's what I'm looking for. I'm always looking to move the poem or let the poem expand or contract or turn in some unexpected direction. That's really a very basic way to keep my own interest in the poem. If it keeps going in the same direction, there's really no thrill or surprise for the writer or the reader. So it's a matter of kind of keeping - figuratively keeping a light touch on the pencil so that you allow it to move in other directions.

SIMON: You know what poem really got me? "The Exception."

COLLINS: (Reading) "The Exception." Whoever said there's a poem lurking in the darkness of every pencil was not thinking of this one.

SIMON: (Laughter) Was that a bad day, a bad afternoon, or...

COLLINS: It's just - I don't know. As I said, these things just arrive. I think the shortest one, the title is "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." Trouble was not his middle name.

SIMON: Yes (laughter). Well, they're delightful.

COLLINS: Thank you.

SIMON: One last question - do we read poems to children and get them to read and even remember and recite poems to interest them in literature and then somehow lose that thread?

COLLINS: Well, I think it comes and goes. I think all children are natural-born artists in the sense that if you give a child some paper and some crayons and tell them not to write on the walls, they'll start drawing. You don't have to tell them about the prism and the color scheme and how to do things. Same with putting on some music - they'll often start dancing. Especially to the Beatles - I find that interesting that children can't resist dancing to the Beatles.

But at some point, something occurs called adolescence, and that's when self-consciousness comes in. And those natural creative abilities seem to wither, at least temporarily. And I think dancers, painters, trumpet players are people for whom the creative interest has not been killed off by adolescence and who recover those childhood abilities and the childhood joy of creating something new.

SIMON: Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States and perpetual adolescent - his new collection, "Musical Tables" - thank you so much for being with us.

COLLINS: Thank you, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCIN DZIEMBOR'S "ORANGE VACATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 16, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous headline and web introduction to this report misstated the name of the Musical Tables poetry collection as Music Tables.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.