To be one of the most recognizable — and sometimes controversial — figures in contemporary poetry, Billy Collins does not fit the image movies and popular romances have taught us to expect of poets: fragile artistes too frail and tender for this world. He shows up 10 minutes late at Benson Hall, home to Vanderbilt's English department, cradling a half-empty (or full?) Starbucks iced coffee in one arm as he removes his narrow-lensed sunglasses.
"I had an impossible time finding this place," he starts in, apologetically, with a slight chuckle. He shuffles some papers, then directs a visitor to a low armchair, taking a straight-backed one for himself. He's being interviewed, and yet the interviewer is the one who feels like he's in a therapist's office.
There isn't anything surreal or extraordinary about him, despite his celebrity. Slouching his shoulders somewhat in Vanderbilt's hallowed halls, he's just a guy, sitting in a slightly higher chair, who writes poems as opposed to "poetry."
"I hate the word 'poetry,' " Collins says. "To use the word 'poetry' is like saying 'sports.' There isn't really anything similar about ladies' badminton on a Sunday morning and an NFL game that same afternoon, except they both have rules and they both have a goal.
"When we're talking about poetry, we sort of assume we're talking about the same thing, but a lot of times, I don't think that we are. People talk about poetry in this sort of high-sounding way — like, 'Poetry lifts the human spirit.' Well, does that include Ovid's poetry on how to seduce women? Does that include Mother Goose? They're just very different creatures."
Coming from Collins, who concludes a two-week residence at Vanderbilt this week, these ideas have something of the weight of a manifesto. In 1999, The New York Times declared Collins "the most popular poet in America" after his publisher, Random House, offered him a six-figure advance for a three-book deal. Six figures in the poetry world is unheard of.
In the 12 years since, his popularity has only increased. As U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, Collins shepherded the "Poetry 180" program through the Library of Congress. The program, aimed at bringing easily decipherable, contemporary poetry to high school students, was regarded as a success.
Yet many critics rebuked Collins' initiative, saying that "accessible" poetry isn't good poetry. And judging by tradition, Vanderbilt would seem an unlikely supporter of the style Collins favors. After almost a century, the cornerstone of the university's literary reputation remains the Jazz Age work of the Fugitives and their later incarnation as the Southern Agrarians, groups primarily renowned for formal (i.e., metered, rhymed) poetry.
Exemplified by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, they embraced the ideals of agrarianism and formalism in poetry, and reacted against sentimentality and urbanization. Even today, many of the poets within Vanderbilt's English department — the acclaimed Mark Jarman, for one — could be characterized as neo-formalist. Leaving the analysis there, however, would be a narrow reading of Vanderbilt's history, suggests Kate Daniels, director of Collins' residency and a member of the Vanderbilt English faculty.
"Although we're proud of Vanderbilt's literary heritage as the birthplace of the Southern Literary Renaissance, the current manifestation of creative writing on campus is much more diverse," says Daniels, herself an award-winning poet.
"How can anyone who has the means resist bringing Billy Collins to campus? He is an incredibly generous performer of his work, and an engaging lecturer on poets and poetry." His stay at the university, she says, "has been a fabulous success for students, faculty and many, many members of the community."
Many would-be readers shy away from poetry because they see it as esoteric, enigmatic and elitist — the precise stigma Collins hopes to overcome. While Collins did not include any of his own work in the "Poetry 180" collections, it isn't surprising that the program was his brainchild. His poetry is a far cry from the cerebral, allusion-intensive style of the Modernists. It is grounded, conversational and resolutely plain-spoken. He tends to favor free verse and usually opens with the quotidian, to expand thereafter.
Just how Collins fits into Vanderbilt's poetic legacy, then, becomes an interesting question. When the question is put to him point blank, he sighs slightly, presses his pointer finger to his upper lip, and draws a deep, deliberate breath.
"I'm not a formalist, but I'm always seeking form," Collins says. "It might be a much looser set of principles, but when I begin a poem, I'm always seeking a stanza. And if at some point the poem doesn't want to go there, if it's just rebelling against that idea, then it turns into something different." He shifts in his seat, unself-consciously slurping down the remaining sips of his iced coffee.
"But I'm always thinking of the stanza as a unit of poetic thought," he adds. "So I have formal considerations when I'm writing. It's just that I don't write sestinas. I don't find myself at odds with the formalist tradition here at Vanderbilt."
Collins is a proponent for poetry in all forms, it seems — well, all forms but one. He has no love for the Kindle, even when a visitor says his grandmother bought one expressly to reread The Secret Garden.
"The trouble with Kindles and poetry is they're incompatible," Collins says, permitting himself a smile. "Let's assume your grandmother's eyesight isn't perfect" — a correct assumption — "and she has to increase the typeface. Well, it changes the shape — the form — of the poem. I actually had a Kindle at one time and read one novel on it ... and to this day, that's still the record."
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