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Poet Billy Collins discusses humor, authenticity and ‘Aimless Love’

October 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
"I knew that poets seemed to be miserable," says writer Billy Collins about his younger self, yearning to fit in. While he admits he "faked a miserable character" at the start of his career, he's since embraced his sense of humor. Jeffrey Brown talks to Collins about his new collection, "Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a look at the plain speech and droll wit of one of the United States’ foremost poets.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry, more guppies crowding the fish tank” — lines from Billy Collins, former poet laureate and one of the nation’s best-known poets. His new collection is titled “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems” from his work of the last decade.

And welcome to you.

BILLY COLLINS, “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems”: Thank you very much, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: I thought I would steal from a blurb in this book.

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Alice Fulton writes, “Billy Collins put the fun back in profundity.”

Are you consciously aiming for fun? Are you consciously aiming for profundity? What are you doing?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, there’s a lot of unconscious activity that goes on I think in the composition of a poem. So it’s — I can’t — I can’t picture myself starting out aiming to do anything or having much of an agenda.

I think in writing a poem, I’m making some tonal adjustments, and it took me a long time to allow anything like fun into my poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: It did?

BILLY COLLINS: Yes. Well, I thought originally when I was in school and I wanted to be a poet, I knew that poets seemed to be miserable.

(LAUGHTER)

BILLY COLLINS: And I was a pretty happy kid, but I was willing to…

JEFFREY BROWN: So you had to fit yourself into that miserableness?

BILLY COLLINS: I had to fake it. I had to get into this miserable character before I wrote poems.

And it wasn’t for quite a while that I was able to read poets that were — allowed me to be humorous without being silly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But humorous as a — that’s hard to do, too, right, to try to be humorous?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, it is.

The really authentic thing about humor is that anyone can pretend to be serious. Anyone who’s ever had a job — in fact, we’re pretending to be serious now, more or less.

(LAUGHTER)

BILLY COLLINS: Or, if you sat in a classroom, you could put on — you can put on seriousness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

BILLY COLLINS: But you can’t pretend to be funny.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

BILLY COLLINS: I mean, you can fail to be funny.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

BILLY COLLINS: But you can’t fake it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the authenticity of the voice that you developed — is developed the right word? It took time to get that voice, which is a kind of — there is humor, but it is a speaking, a casual voice, I guess. Is that fair?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, it’s — yes, I think it starts out with a kind of — a casual straightforward tone, trying to just get the reader engaged in the first stanza by not making too many demands on the reader, by just setting up a little scene or a kind of engagement of speech.

I hope the poem, as it goes on, gets more complicated, a little more demanding, a little more ambiguous or speculative, so that we’re drifting away from the casual beginning of the poem into something a little more serious.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I want you to read the first of the new poems, just as an example here. It’s called “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska.”

BILLY COLLINS: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

BILLY COLLINS: You’re quite right about the title.

(LAUGHTER)

BILLY COLLINS: “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska.”

“Too bad you weren’t here six months ago, was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska. You could have seen the astonishing spectacle of the sandhill cranes, thousands of them feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River. There was no point in pointing out the impossibility of my being there then because I happened to be somewhere else, so I nodded and put on a look of mild disappointment, if only to be part of the commiseration.

“It was the same look I remember wearing about six months ago in Georgia, when I was told that I had just missed the spectacular annual outburst of azaleas, brilliant against the green backdrop of spring, and the same in Vermont six months before that, when I arrived shortly after the magnificent foliage had gloriously peaked, Mother Nature, as she is called, having touched the hills with her many-colored brush, a phenomenon that occurs like the others around the same time every year, when I am apparently off in another state, stuck in a motel lobby with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee busily missing God knows what.”

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, there’s the humor of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also the, if it is profundity, of, that’s life,right?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, it is.

And it’s Howard Nemerov who made up to verb to azaleate.

JEFFREY BROWN: To azaleate?

BILLY COLLINS: And to azaleate someone means to commiserate with them about local natural event that they — they just missed or they will miss because they’re leaving too early.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

You do a lot of public readings and a lot of public speaking. You’re one of a handful of poets who — who — who I guess we could think of as public poets in our culture, which is not noticeably open to poetry all that much, right? What’s your sense of it?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, Robert Frost really started this whole thing rolling.

He was, I believe, the first poet who started going to colleges. Before that, poets didn’t give public readings very often, certainly not — there was no circuit of schools. Well, now I would say at any given moment in American life, there are probably 45 poets in airplanes vectoring across the country heading towards…

(LAUGHTER)

 JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a funny image for — when we usually think nobody’s reading poet, but you’re saying poets are crisscrossing America…

(LAUGHTER)

BILLY COLLINS: Yes. I don’t know if anyone’s reading it, but poets are still flying around the country going from lectern to lectern.

That circuitry has become very well-established.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, I noticed in some of the more recent work, you’re — you’re working more in poetic forms, sonnets, even a play on haiku in one area. Is there a reason for that? Is it the challenge or just wanting the form?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I think the pleasure of form is that you have a companion with you besides all the poetry you have ever read. You have the form, which…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re always aware of those poets you have ever read?

BILLY COLLINS: I think the candles of the page are lit by those poets of the past.

You’re — to write poetry is to be very alone, but you always have the company of your influences. But you also have the company of the form itself, which has a kind of consciousness. I mean, the sonnet will simply tell you, that’s too many syllables or that’s too many lines or that’s the wrong place.

So, instead of being alone, you’re in dialogue with the form.

JEFFREY BROWN: As opposed to you have to telling yourself, well, it may be enough.

BILLY COLLINS: That’s right. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new collection is “Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems.”

Billy Collins, thanks so much.

BILLY COLLINS: Great to be here.