Billy Collins on Beauty and the Difference Between Poetry and Prose

English: Former United States Poet Laureate (2...
Former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins at the 10th annual Calabash Literary Festival in St. Elizabeth’s, Jamaica, May 30, 2010, photographed by Suzannah Gilman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So often when those last-minute opportunities come up, you know for a little adventure, a break in the routine, we pass them up, don’t we? It’s too easy to say we have things to get done. But luckily Jody, Ann and I decided to throw all plans to the wind (and luckily, a husband, three kids and some art frames were willing to allow us the change in plans. Well, at least the frames voiced no objection). Yesterday afternoon we discovered that my hero, Billy Collins would be reading last night at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, about an hour to our east.

We met for a quick and very tasty bite or three at the Brew Pub at the Inn at Turkey Hill (Do not confuse this place with the convenience store!) in Bloomsburg and rode together from there. The directions were a bit dodgy, but you can always count on a group of middle-aged men standing on a street corner to set you on the right path. We avoided the college kids, even though we were heading to a college. Believe me, it was the right choice. The girls in the parking lot had no idea where there might be another parking lot on campus since that one was full. Apparently their brains were too. All that studying, I presume.

Not only was the parking lot packed, but so too was the auditorium where Mr. Collins was to speak. And speak he did, but mostly he read poetry. And it was wonderful. Wonderful. Did I mention it was wonderful? He read many favorites of mine and a few I hadn’t heard before, always with a little wit and wisdom in between. And though surely a good number of kids were there to get a few extra credit points in their English classes, there seemed to be many genuine fans like us in the crowd, and quite a few stayed for the question and answer segment at the end.

Billy Collins Reads at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA

One of the cool things about his presentation was that he gave a lot of writer-ly advice, as he had been working with students before the evening reading, and would be doing more workshops and such the following day. A few of his nuggets of wisdom included front loading your book with all the best poems when submitting to an editor for publication; you can always change the order of the work later.  🙂 Another gem was that when teaching poetry to young people it would be more effective to ask your students where the poem is going, and how does it get there, than to speak in the traditional terms of themes and meanings.  I like this idea, because it opens the door to talk about the use of so many poetic devices, metaphor, rhyme, sound, meter, and so on.

Another reason I like it is because, as he implied, it fits more closely to the way the poet writes. Very often, unlike most prose, a poem is written without the poet fully knowing the destination. It’s a journey toward the revelation at the end that may not be known when the poet launches out with whatever first triggered the piece. At least that’s one thing I have in common with Billy Collins. I also liked that in poetry he talks about revision more as polishing or refining. While revision is part of the creation process, it is true that once the poem has been birthed, there can be clarifying and tweaking, but there is a danger of revising something until all the magic and life is gone from it. Sort of like cooking the chicken so long that all the flavor is in the broth, but not in the meat. My metaphor, not Billy’s. I also agree fully that such editing almost always involves cutting things out rather than adding things in. The editor’s knife, as apposed to the editor’s pen.

Billy Collins signs a book for my son Micah.

Possibly the best quote of the night was when someone asked if he wrote anything other than poetry. With his cocky smile he replied, “Yes! Prose.” Of course he went on to elaborate on the writing of poetic criticism and essays, but insisted that he felt more confident in poetry. Each sentence written in prose, for him feels as if there could be at least three or four ways of saying it syntactically different, and possibly better than the one chosen. But in poetry he feels confident once he has written it that the words in a line are in the best order possible. I understand what he is saying, because to me it feels the same way. I suppose some of us are made for poetry and others are geared for prose. It is the rare writer, it seems, who does both supremely well.

I enjoyed the anecdote about his friend, “the novelist,” to whom he insists, when describing the difference between poetry and prose, that “Poetry can be thought of as a beautiful bird. Whereas prose is more like a potato.”

It was my first time meeting him, and I wished I had more time to talk to him afterward, but he had quite a line for the book signing, so I asked him if he would sign a copy of Picnic, Lightning that I had picked up for my youngest son, the emerging poet. I asked that he sign across the page from “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” since I had written a response poem to it. He was kind  enough to ask the title of it and share a quick laugh before I had to thank him and move on.

Thank you, Mr. Collins. I am grateful, and my companions and I enjoyed ourselves very much indeed.

Billy finished his reading last night with that lovely little poem about beauty and love, called “Night Club.” So I thought I would end this post for you with a come back of my reading of this from three years ago, recorded at my place of employment at the time. I hope you like it.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Bruce Ruston says:

    Thanking for proving me right when i said that you read beautifully


    1. sonofwalt says:

      aw, shucks. Thanks!


  2. angryricky says:

    I went to a reading in fall 2002: Billy Collins, with Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, and Thomas Lux. Collins stole the show with a poem about a lanyard made at summer camp, though Clifton was also highly involving. Lux should have known that he would pale alongside such luminaries, and respectfully not accepted the invitation. He was just out of his league, as I would be.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      As would I, yes. 🙂 Some of his critics say he is simplistic, and use words like accessible, as if that were an insult. His approach into a piece might be simple, but he’s anything but simplistic. His stuff is actually fairly complex. I think the man’s a genius.


  3. MS says:

    Thank you for the pingback.

    And a great post.

    Simple is satisfying.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Absolutely. And thank you!


  4. I first fell for Billy when I heard him read Night Club on the radio. His books populate the poetry shelves next to Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Paul Durcan. Lucky you to see him and have a book signed. I will watch the videos when I’m not at work!


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Yes, it was a thrill to meet him, and even to make him laugh for a moment. I wish I could have had more time to talk with him, but the line was long.


    2. You made Billy Collins laugh! Yay. Maybe he’ll write a poem about it.


    3. sonofwalt says:

      It was about a response poem that I wrote to “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July.” I asked him to sign to my son, Micah across the page from that poem. He asked what the name of my response poem was, and I told him “Kayaking on the Susquehanna.” He asked if it’s something I’ve done because if I did it didn’t count. If you know his poem then this makes sense, I replied, “Yes, and it is a pleasure. In July or any month.” That made him laugh, and that made me happy. And god, I know, I’m such a nerd!


    4. Marvelous!! I love poetry nerdness, it’s so satisfying to banter about known word pictures. One of the many pleasures of life. In July or any month.


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