Writers learn early on that life's little annoyances - the blaring car alarm, the thumping bass from the neighbor's stereo, the barking dog next door - can be turned into material for their work. What sweet relief it is no longer to be held captive by these petty events but to capture them and put them to work for the greater advancement of literature. It's just these irritations - as well as life's tiny moments of joy - that inspire the poetry of Billy Collins, a professor of English at Lehman College at the City University of New York who is now serving in his second year as the nation's poet laureate. Collins comes to Spokane this week as Whitworth College's 2002-03 Endowed English Reader. He'll speak Friday at 7:30 pm in Cowles Memorial Auditorium.
Collins is a master at blending humor with gravity, starting his poems with innocuous observations of middle-class American life and turning through humor to encounter something profound. The two years since his appointment as poet laureate have seen great upheaval in the nation's history -- and as a poet whose work comes from his personal observations of daily life, Collins may seem ill-suited to speak to the enormity of recent events. Yet people look to him for words of wisdom, a situation he finds most curious.
"They quickly find there's no wisdom here, so they go away again," he laughs. "But I think the idea of turning to poetry in times of crisis is revealing. In chaotic, unsettled times, I have journalists calling me up and asking about poetry. I tell them I'm against terrorism, brutality, and fundamentalist extremism in any form. It's not an interesting answer. But it shows that people think of poetry as a stabilizing influence, a hand-grip to hold onto during difficult times."
At Whitworth, Collins will read from his works and then take questions from the audience and sign books. Speaking from his home near New York City, he says he doesn't decide exactly what he'll read until he's standing in front of an audience.
"I have a list of 40 or 50 poems to choose from, but I make it up as I'm at the podium," he explains. "I try to sense the audience reaction and then choose. The reaction is subtle - it's not huge applause or people throwing things. But I try to discriminate between the modes of silence."
Poetry is often seen as a serious and ponderous art form, tackling capital-letter issues like Life, Death, and Meaning, but Collins believes poetry should be removed from the exile of the pedestal and returned to the mainstream of American life. In his individual poems and in his public readings, he strives for a balance of tragedy and comedy, using irony as the fulcrum.
"The aim is a mix of levity and seriousness, irony and elegy, if you will," he says. "I try to create that overall effect in a public reading as well, so the audience leaves in a state of pleasurable emotional disorientation."
Tragedy and comedy are far more related than people commonly think, he says. "The extremes, I find, are dangerous. Theater has these masks of tragedy and comedy, but there's no mask for irony. I'm trying to create a mask for irony."
"The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh said that tragedy is nothing more than insufficiently developed comedy," he continues. "Charles Simic says tragedy is claustrophobic because it can only lead to the grave, but comedy can lead anywhere. I think humor is epistemological. It's a mode of perception. It's not just about being funny."
The narrator in Collins' poems is a charming fellow, a gentle soul who enjoys the pleasures of food, of jazz, of walking the dog. These simple joys lead him to ponder some of the vagaries of existence, but he never floats away completely. He remains grounded in physical realities - a knife on a cutting board, the neighbors' barking dog, the weight of the snow in the shovel - while quizzically studying the strangeness within the ordinary.
In "Man Listening to Disc," one of the new poems from his 2001 collection, Sailing Alone around the Room, the protagonist is "ambling along 44th Street" while listening to a jazz quartet over headphones:
The music is loud yet so confidential
I cannot help feeling even more
like the center of the universe
than usual as I walk along to a rapid
little version of "The Way You Look Tonight,"
and all I can say to my fellow pedestrians,
to the woman in the white sweater,
the man in the tan raincoat and the heavy glasses,
who mistake themselves for the center of the universe -
all I can say is watch your step
because the five of us, instruments and all,
are about to angle over
to the south side of the street
and then, in our own tightly knit way,
turn the corner at Sixth Avenue.
As poet laureate, Collins takes his poetry to the streets in more ways than this quirky metaphor. One of his missions is to bring people back to poetry, especially those whose last exposure was through a musty textbook and brittle lectures about symbolism and iambic pentameter. He reaches out to current students with Poetry 180, a program of one contemporary poem for each day of the school year, as posted on the Library of Congress Web site. Collins asks schools to plan regularly scheduled readings of the poems, perhaps as part of the daily announcements and drawing on a variety of readers.
"I thought I'd present the program with a number of democratic ideals," he says. "I want to get everybody involved and reading aloud, from the students to the principal to the groundskeeper to the lady in the cafeteria who hands out French fries. One drawback is that often high school students don't read well aloud, but this could be part of their poetry training. You can't read a poem effectively and emphatically unless you understand it."
Part of that understanding comes from having the time to let imagination reign. Collins grew up as an only child in New York, and he says he spent many hours reading and wondering and daydreaming on his own, activities that he sees as critical to creative development.
"Children tend to go into hiding places when they're young - under the stairs, in the closet, in a fort made from sofa cushions," he says. "Only children have more opportunities to do that, and it's in those hiding places where imagination begins to bubble and an inner voice speaks. Poets are dedicated to listening to that inner voice. Now, though, there's such an emphasis on scheduled sports and lessons that there's little time for daydreaming."
This comment soon leads to a delightful Collins-ian meander. "The next thing is going to be daydreaming classes. I can see it. At 4:30, Mrs. Smith will pick you up for a half-hour of structured daydreaming ... scheduled spontaneity ... yes, that will be the next big thing."