Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
When you describe Billy Collins you have to use words that don’t normally go together: contemporary best-selling poet. He gets (it’s rumoured) huge advances for his books and his readings sell out. Famous for tender, gentle, witty poems that seem to be about things we all recognise and remember, his lightness of touch has the power to cause seismic shifts in our understanding of ordinary life.
“The joy in writing poetry is being down on your hands and knees with the language. If someone carves swans and animals out of soap, that person loves soap. And if you write, you love the language. Writing a poem is an opportunity to get as close to the language as, pretty much, you can get.”
He is a very big name in the US: serving two terms as the US Poet Laureate, from 2001-2003, and was New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. He’s taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and is Distinguished Professor at Lehman College, City University of New York. You can listen to him talk here on The Big Think.
His readings are easy to find on YouTube, but though this one is amateur (note the plane noise) it’s the only available version of this, a favourite poem of mine: The Trouble with Poetry.
Collins’ voice is flat. His wit is dry. Expression is understated, range confined, persona – kindly. He is not animated, not resonant, not big. Yet he compels our attention. He’s the poetic equivalent of miniaturist. You think you’ve got it, but then you realise you haven’t. You wheel on your heel and go back for a harder look.
Reading a poem read aloud reveals its rhythmic, melodic, and alliterative qualities. It makes you feel the music of the words literally, physically, like going for a walk or doing some exercise. It becomes a bodily experience. Hearing an author read their own work can really enhance your understanding of it. With Billy Collins, the nature of the man is so consistent with the tone of the poems, it simply deepens the delight.
So, when you’ve had a bad day: the drycleaners closed before you got there, the stock market is a bit worrying, maybe someone forgot to tell you they weren’t coming home for dinner, pick up a Billy Collins poem. You will soon see the world as it is. It will soothe your spirit, calm your nerves, stir your thoughts, and put your mood in gear again.
This is National poetry month in the USA.